A career built on inspiring change


At the PSA19 Opening Plenary on Saturday, Paralympian Kurt Fearnley shared some valuable lessons learned during his stellar career that pharmacists can infuse into their practice – strength, inspiring others, and striving to challenge norms.

Kurt Fearnley has always been determined. Born without the lower portion of his spine, he has never let that hold him back. From backyard games of football, in his hometown of Carcoar, to crawling along the Great Wall of China and the Kokoda Trail, he has met every challenge head on.

Turning to wheelchair sports in his teens, Mr Fearnley became one of the world’s best. Since his career began at the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games, he has become one of the most dominant forces in sport, competing at five Paralympic Games, winning 13 medals, including three gold, and more than 30 marathons around the globe. He was also recognised as an Officer of the Order of Australia. 

He carried the flag into the Opening Ceremony parade of athletes at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in 2018, his last competitive games where he also won the marathon. Reflecting on his most important achievements and wondering if he was the best that he could be, he realised it was in the moments he helped and inspired others that mattered most.

‘I now get to see those 2.5 decades as one picture because I’m done,’ said Mr Fearnley, now 38. 

‘In April last year I pulled on the Green and Gold for the last time, and now I look back and realise that often the highlight of that year or Paralympic period is something that happened off the course.’

Strength and hard work

Mr Fearnley discussed the hard work that he put in off-course that differentiated him from the rest, and his journey to discovering what ‘winning’ really means.

He played a clip of his win at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a 42-kilometre marathon race, which was a fight until the end.

When he saw the marathon racer sitting on his tail make a crucial error by trying too hard and ‘digging down’ which prevents the wheelchair from going forwards, he knew he had won the race.

‘For 12 months, you’re training for the last 200 metres. And good is not going to cut it. I don’t see how anyone is going to become the absolute best in the world at anything that they do without an intention and working towards perfect. Because if you’re not intending on it, I can guarantee you one thing – the person next to you, they will be. As will the 12 behind them.’ 

Post-race Mr Fearnley realised that he had actually won the race 12 months earlier on the back of a promise from his able-bodied trainer.

‘In 2004 [my trainer] who had coached me though a decade said, “Kurt I know I can make you one of the strongest, but if you give me 12 months of your life I’ll hands down just make you the toughest.”’ 

Mr Fearnley said that together, they changed the approach to wheelchair race training.

The reason they won so frequently, he said, was that they constantly looked for change. They talked about revelling in hardship, owning it and finding joy in it. 

Mr Fearnley realised what strength really was after his win that day, and that it is not a physical thing that equates with mobility.

‘What’s most important is if you’re going to be the person that’s going to build and acknowledge the strength within yourself. But more importantly are you going to be the person that’s going to build the strength in every single person around you? Are you the one that reminds them that they’re strong enough to handle today, because that’s strength. It’s taken me 25 years to realise that I’m not my wins, I’m not my losses – I’m that.’

Challenging perceptions

One of Mr Fearnley’s most epic displays of courage and determination was when he crawled the 96-kilometre Kokoda Trail in 2009. Struggling and needing assistance at times, he wasn’t afraid to ask – something he implores others to take stock of in their personal and professional lives.

‘If you’re struggling you need to be able to talk about it. And specifically with depression, it’s like cancer. You don’t tell someone who has cancer to cure themselves. You go to your doctor and talk to them about it, and tell you’re family that you’re struggling. You get that support that’s needed. The ability to ask for help when you need it can change lives and save lives. That can convince a guy in a wheelchair that he can climb Kokoda.’

Throughout his journey, Mr Fearnley worked with disability organisations across Papua New Guinea (PNG) and spoke about how education, sport, and eventually – hopefully – employment can be used to empower the community. 

He was told that in PNG, people with disabilities are kept in a room. Although their loving families might support them as much as possible, it is thought that they shouldn’t and don’t actually want to interact with the wider community. But as he crawled through villages, he was helping people question that belief.

When he propelled himself through the first village on his wheelchair after crawling through miles of mud, he realised people were afraid of him because it was so far from their reality. It’s the people that challenge these norms that can make a difference, Mr Fearnley said.

‘We need more rebels, we need more optimists, we need more people having the conversations about strength in both workplaces and lounge rooms. If we have those conversations on the individual level, we have won it.’

‘There’s no do-overs of today or tomorrow, so be bold. And rip in. Bring people along with you.’

Improving inclusivity

During the Q&A segment, a pharmacist who has a daughter with a disability noted that while some people with disabilities visited pharmacies, many don’t. They stay in their community housing, she said, and are not seen by a pharmacist. So how can pharmacies be more inclusive?

Mr Fearnley replied that pharmacists haven’t dealt with disability previously, they need people with disabilities in their workforce – not least because it’s the right thing to do, allows for a greater understanding of what disability is and helps to create a relationship with this client base.

‘We need to reinvent the wheel,’ he said, ‘and if there’s not someone that you’re getting access to in the community, then the whole thing should be rethought. Rethink policy – that’s where the rebels are needed, those who will turn it on its head and reshape it. 

‘Our community is funding a $22 billion National Disability Insurance Scheme, but if you don’t allow us to live or come in, then it’s for nothing. It can’t just be my fight, or everyone with a disability or their parent’s fight, because if it’s just that, we’ve lost. We need everyone to buy into it.’

In closing, PSA CEO Dr Shane Jackson thanked Mr Fearnley for his inspirational words: ‘The courage that you’ve shown and the courage that we can all show is fantastic.’

For more information on disability employment in pharmacy, see the upcoming September issue of Australian Pharmacist.