Paralympian Kurt Fearnley completed a crushing Kokoda trek by getting help, writes Fiona Smith.
There is no doubt that Paralympian Kurt Fearnley is extraordinarily strong – physically and mentally – but experience has shown him it’s dangerous to try and keep problems to yourself.
“You are a stronger person, a stronger family, a stronger workplace if you can be comfortable with your vulnerability and speak about it,” the three-time Paralympic gold medallist told the audience at the ANZ APEX event in Sydney.
The athlete and his family decided to complete the 96-kilometre Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, raising awareness for mental health.
Fearnley, who was born missing the lower part his spine and is unable to use his legs, decided to crawl the distance over 11 days in 2009. “In one word, Kokoda was just deadly,” he said. “It was the hardest thing I have ever done.” Tellingly, he lost seven kilos in less than a fortnight during the trek.
When he pushed himself into the first village on the trail he discovered he was a terrifying figure: “They had never seen a guy in a wheelchair propelling himself before”.
A child with a disability lived in the village and Fearnley found him naked, isolated, underneath one of the houses and crawling in the mud. “And I pushed over to him and he was afraid of me. So, I got out of my chair and crawled over to him and put a footy jersey on him,” he said.
One of the porters, Mac, was moved to tears by that interaction and insisted Fearnley would now be his brother on the journey.
“I have received constant support through my life, but I never received anything like I got on that track,” said Fearnley. Mac never left his side and, when Fearnley’s own brothers tried to get between them, Mac would say “he is my brother on this track”.
“If my pants would fall down, Mac would be pulling them up before they hit the dirt. If I was face forward in the dirt, Mac would be on his knees in front of me cleaning out my eyes and nose.
“If he thought I was going to fall of a rock, or ledge, or log, he threw himself in front of me.”
When Fearnley was exhausted and could go no further, Mac coached him on a stretcher, put Fearnley’s 25-kilogram pack on his back, balanced the wheelchair between his head and the backpack, picked Fearnley up and ran him into camp in about 30 minutes.
By the time the rest of the party arrived, Mac had already erected his tent, stripped off Fearnley’s gear and was washing him with a bucket of water.
“A mate who was with me, who was a physio, was rubbing the junk out of my shoulders and I was bawling, because it felt like every part of my skin that was touched was on fire.
“As he is forcing a pain killer down my throat, the tent opens up and it is Mac, as he drops me off a packet of Twisties and a warm Coke.”
Mack had run to the next village and paid for it out of his own pocket.
When the trek was done, Fearnley had added another achievement to an already-impressive list – and he had done it by allowing himself to be helped by Mac.
Fearnley says people are often more capable than they realise when it comes to dealing with challenge and difficulty, but asking for help can save lives and change lives.
“There is no weakness in that – only strength.”
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