“Pushing the Limits: Life, Marathons & Kokoda” is the autobiography of Kurt Fearnley who is a three-time gold medal winning Paralympian. Driven by the determination to push his own limits, he has also competed in the New York and Boston marathons, sailed in a victorious Sydney to Hobart yacht race and amazingly crawled the Kokoda track. His determination and self-belief are an example for all.
Fearnley was born with lumbo-sacral agenesis, a spinal and pelvic congenital disorder that caused him to have small and malformed legs. Despite this, Kurt enjoyed a carefree youth in the small country town of Carcoar in central New South Wales. His parents refused to treat him differently from his siblings. Kurt built his legendary strength and endurance while crawling across country tracks, hoisting himself over fences and bashing through streams with his brothers. Living in a small town, everyone knew the Fearnley family and treated Kurt as one of their own. Remarkably, it wasn't until he went to high school that he began to feel different.
The struggles of forming teenage identity can be all the more challenging when you have a disability, and this was the case for Kurt. Once he entered secondary school he became aware of other kids staring at him and was taunted by one boy on the school bus. Again however, he rose above his challenges with support from a perceptive teacher, family and friends. After being helped to purchase his first race wheelchair, he was on the road to achieving his sporting dreams. The road from there was filled with unexpected twists and turns as he learned to come to terms with failure on the track. He endured the mental and physical torments of racing including being forced to recover from two serious racing accidents.
The power of positivity
The most striking aspect of the book for me was the level of support and positivity Kurt received, particularly in his formative years. Family and locals in the community where he grew up did not doubt his abilities or see his disability as defining him. By his own admission, this helped him build the strong faith in himself that allowed him to become the champion he is today. Similarly striking, was his refusal to be daunted by any challenge. In my experience, living with a disability can sometimes make you feel more averse to taking risks as you become accustomed to experiencing setbacks and discouragements. Kurt never let being discouraged stop him, like the time he was scorned by a trail-walk tour operator when attempting to organise and pursue his 'ridiculous' dream of crawling Kokoda.
While Kurt came across as warm, likeable and down-to-earth, I felt expressing greater vulnerability would have made him more relatable to others with a disability. I felt the amazing opportunities he has had set him apart from many others with a disability who would not have had similar experiences. I found him most relatable in the moments when he did express self-doubt, such as when he related the frustration and self-consciousness he felt as a teenager when realising he couldn't access some classrooms without help.
Disability and equality
I also valued his commentary of the treatment of people with disabilities in Australia. The criticism he received for complaining about being forced into a push chair at the airport shows how far society still needs to be educated about exactly what it means to ensure equality and personal dignity for people with disabilities. Furthermore, many of us would relate to the usually well-meaning but patronising comments he recounts receiving when out in the community. I couldn't help but laugh when he marvelled at the fact that people were still surprised at him doing his own grocery shopping in his wheelchair when he'd just crawled Kokoda!
A great example
"Pushing the Limits" is a compelling tale of triumph over adversity, which celebrates a great Australian. Kurt's story is a reminder of how much we can all achieve if we are willing to work hard, believe in ourselves and never give up.