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Kurt Fearnley - Wheelchair Racer

Kurt Fearnley
'I don't know whether I always wanted to be at an elite level but I was given the opportunity to race wheelchairs and I enjoyed it so much that I decided to take it to the next level. Then it was like a bug, I just fell in love with it.'

Despite having lumbar sacral agenesis from birth, a condition that means he can't bear his own weight, Kurt has become an elite spotsman. Kurt is one of the best wheelchair racers in the world, currently world champion in all distances over 800 metres. He won gold twice in Athens, including the marathon, where he unbelievably pushed the last five kilometres with a flat tyre and still beat the silver medallist by more than six minutes. Beijing will be Kurt's third Paralympic Games.

What is lumbar sacral agenesis? 

It means that parts of my lumbar and my sacral didn’t form at birth, so I’m missing about three or four inches of my spine. It means that I can’t use my legs. I can feel and move my legs somewhat but I can’t bear weight.

Had you always wanted to be involved with a sport at an elite level?

I always wanted to be involved with sport. My family are a sporting family – we're a rugby league-supporting family. I don't know whether I always wanted to be at an elite level but I was given the opportunity to race wheelchairs and I enjoyed it so much that I decided to take it to the next level. Then it was like a bug, I just fell in love with it. Now I guess my lifestyle is about trying to make myself fitter and stronger and faster. I think that's a fantastic lifestyle and I'll do that as long as I'm able.

How is your training going in the lead-up to the Beijing Paralympics?

It's going perfectly. Training camp has gone well, and everything is going in the right direction. I can't complain at all.

How much are you training now?

I'm easing off the amount of training now and just making sure that every session is a quality one. I'm out training in the chair for about three or four hours a day, a cut down of about two hours.

What happens once you get to the Beijing?

There's a week where I'll be tapering down again to where I'll probably knock out only two hours a day, but it will be at race pace, really high intensity. My first race is on 8 September, and then I race at least once a day, sometimes three times a day for the following eight days.

Are you doing any preparation for the smog in Beijing?

Not at all, just staying out of it and trying to keep healthy. I'll go into detail of the finer things like that when I get there. We have the team doctor who's got strategies once we're over there, how to deal with it once we're on site. At the moment it's all about trying to stay healthy and arrive at the games with everything going well.

In the 2006 New York Marathon you hit a pothole and crashed, but went on to win and set a new record. How do you do it? What's your secret?

No real secret, that day everything just fell into place. I think that once you're in the race doing something that you've trained so hard for, there's no other option bar finishing. I know that every single race I go into I'm going to give it everything I have and if it means that I have to throw myself back in the chair and keep pushing, then that's just one more thing that I have to get through to get to the finish line.

But that race was one in a million. I could have crashed a thousand times and only one of those times been able to throw myself up and keep going. It was a freakish race and also one that I'm going to be most proud of when I finish racing.

You crashed into a car while training in Switzerland and broke your sternum, leg and nose, and didn't even ring your parents, just rested for a few days. Does pain mean nothing to you?

I think everything is degrees of pain. Training is about managing discomfort and I guess for the marathon specifically, the guy who manages his pain or discomfort better than those around him will be the guy that wins the race. It's just a matter of training every single day and dealing with the discomfort you're going through every day, and then just getting to the start line and dealing with that specific pain. And pushing through. Pain is just a matter of time and the second you get out of the chair the pain eases and eventually it disappears. For me I guess it's just a matter of time.

What sort of competition and training was available when you were growing up?

I didn't really play that much wheelchair sport when I was growing up, until I was about 14. I wasn't really interacting with people in wheelchairs until then. It was a slow introduction and then when I was 17 I decided to take it that step further. That's when I really cemented myself in the disabled sporting community. From there I really increased the amount of interaction with the disabled sport and the elite side of disabled sport. But before that I was just involved in everything, all types of sport, a healthy, active lifestyle.

What qualifications do you have, aside from your sporting achievements?

I'm a trained PDHPE teacher.

FYI PDHPE stands for Personal Development, Health and Physical Education.

When did you have time to study for that?

I went to Charles Sturt University in Bathurst and they let me do my four-year degree in three years. I had to study time and a half for some of it. I went there two years before Athens and then went back in 2005. It was just a matter of managing time. I always got out there and did my training sessions. Getting through university and having the couple of years experience as a professional athlete behind me helped me through the university experience. I was able to manage my time well and I knew I wanted to be a teacher so as soon as I started university I guess I was a bit in front of everyone. I knew how to manage my day to get the most out of it.

Do you teach at all these days?

Not much. I teach when I can. When I have my two weeks off from training in November, hopefully I'll jump into the workforce and become a relief teacher at the schools that I have a relationship with. It's a bit hard teaching when you're training full time. So I try to keep my foot in the door whenever I have the chance.

Do you have any advice for someone trying to balance a professional sports career with study or other work?

I think 'balance' is the key word. I'm in the process of figuring out where to go to from now. Over the last two years the balance has been all wheelchair racing. I've chosen to be the best that I can be, so I've chosen not to teach. Next year I'll try to get into the workforce. There's a different balance for everyone – some people may need the outside stimulus of another job. It's just a matter of working out what's right for you.

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