By Mike Rowbottom

Calling all Paralympians preparing for the wheelchair marathon at the London 2012 Games. It's bad news, I'm afraid. Kurt Fearnley (pictured) has set his sights on a third successive gold.

In the space of the last decade, this 28-year-old resident of Carcoar, New South Wales has established himself as the undisputed master of his event as he has won Olympic titles in Athens and Beijing, five world titles and a host of big city races, including London.

And now that he has rested and recovered from what he describes as the toughest challenge of his life - literally crawling the notorious 60-mile Kokoda track through tangled jungle and swampland in Papua New Guinea - his focus is sharpening on future competitive ambitions over the marathon distance.

"In the end I'm a wheelchair racer not a crawler," he says. "And the next few challenges are definitely back in the race chair. London 2012 is in my thinking most days, and to have the opportunity to attempt to win three straight Paralympic Marathons is something that keeps me going.

"There’s been some great Australian athletes like Kieran Perkins and Grant Hackett who one back-to-back golds, but missed out on the third in fighting fashion, and even if I don't get the third I'll definitely go down fighting.

"But there's still a long way to London with some big races in between. I'd love to keep my winning streaks going in Chicago and New York and there's the Commonwealth Games later this year and IPC World Championships in 2011 to concentrate before London even enters the training plans."

The youngest of five children, Fearnley was born without the lower portion of his spine. But made it clear very early on that he had no intention of letting this circumstance impede his zest for life - and competition.

At school sports days he would take on runners by propelling himself in his wheelchair. But the terrain near home where he played with his elder brothers was too rugged for wheels, so Kurt crawled. It turned out to be a great preparation for the Kokoda…

"I grew up in a small country town that didn't have a lot of cement so getting around in a wheelchair wasn't always the best option," he recalls. "I didn’t really use a chair daily until my mid-teens and crawling was the best way to get around. As I got older I crawled less and less and the last 18 months is the first time I have crawled more than a few metres in about 10 years.

"I had a great childhood crawling the hills around my home, tagging along with my siblings and cousins but it’s not the best way to get around!"

As things turned out, that crawling prowess proved unexpectedly useful on the way home from the Kokoda challenge as Fearnley chose to make his own way through Brisbane Airport as a protest at the wheelchair policy operated by Jetstar.

Fearnley objected to being told he had to check his wheelchair in at the ticket desk rather than the gate, which would have meant him having to be pushed through the airport in an airline wheelchair which could not be propelled by the user.

"It's more of a trolley than a wheelchair," Fearnley said at the time. "I have no mobility at all…I’m exhausted. Kokoda has taken a very heavy toll. But I just want to see this one through."

The incident caused a huge media furore, and Jetstar were swift to apologise for making one of Australia’s most celebrated sportsmen literally crawl through their departure lounge, promising to work on alternate boarding procedures for disabled passengers.

Jetstar's embarrassment was huge, and public opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of Fearnley's stand, although he acknowledges that there were some dissenting voices who insisted he had over-reacted.

"Everyone is entitled to their own opinion," he reflects. "In my defence most of those that claim I made a fuss are commenting on half of the story and without all of the facts. 

"I would do what I did again in a heartbeat. Personal criticism is something you have to wear if you live life in the public eye and I accept that.

"Disability groups, political groups, the media and even airlines themselves have been very supportive of my stance and recognise that what happened wasn't right. Did I make a scene? Sure. But it's not the first time an incident like this has happened with the standard complaints procedure or otherwise sweeping the issue under the table. I helped to get the issue of disability travel back out in the open air and up for discussion.

"In the end, if a request comes again for a person to check in their mobility device rather than have it to the gate and the thought goes through the airline staff member’s head 'Am I doing the right thing? Remember that fella who crawled through the terminal…’ and they double-check what they should be doing, then it was all worth it."

While events have caused Fearnley to re-live his Brisbane Airport challenge, it is the feat he achieved in PNG, supported by a group of family and friends, which remains most vividly in his memory.

The Kokoda trail, originally used by gold miners in the 1890s, subjects all who pass to hot, humid days, freezing nights, torrential rainfall and the constant risk of tropical diseases such as malaria. It was a terrain with which many thousands of Fearnley's compatriots became grimly familiar while fighting the Japanese in 1942 and 1943 in a costly action now known as the Kokoda Track Campaign.

"Every single day was harder than anything I'd ever done," Fearnley says. "One of the toughest things was at the end of the day knowing I had to get up the next day and do it all over again!

"I spent the best part of 18 months preparing for the trip, from hill crawling and chatting with mates who'd been over there, to reading up on the history of the track. But nothing could prepare me for the reality of the situation. There were stages when I looked up a hill and realised I had probably four hours of non-stop climbing to reach any sort of peak. The hill is covered in a honeycomb of roots and between each root is thick slushy mud that you sink up to your elbows in. After 8 to 10 hours of that it’s escape to the tent for some sort of broken rest, knowing that you've got to do it all over again the next day.

"I can't imagine what the guys who defended our country over there in 1942 went through. We had it easy. They were out there for an undetermined length of time, ill-equipped, with little training and thousands of Japanese soldiers shooting them from around every corner. Thinking of what they went through and the sacrifices they made so we can live the lives we live today was one of things that kept me going every day."

Fearnley was also helped on his way by shinpads and wrist protectors which it had taken him the best part of a year to have designed.

"Getting my protective equipment right for the trip was one of the most important steps in my preparation," he recalls. "The PNG jungle terrain takes no prisoners and the smallest cut or graze can turn septic pretty quickly and you're out of there on the next flight home.

"The preparation was a lot of trial and error, I'd try something in the bush around home and if it worked reasonably well, try and perfect it and if it didn’t work at all well, throw it out and try again. I worked with a local boot-maker getting the guards right and after about 12 months had what we thought would work.

"Thankfully it did! I went through a couple of pairs of glove, but the wrist guards and shinpads held up for the entire trip and they sit proudly on my mantelpiece alongside the Paralympic medals."

The manner of his first Olympic victory, at the 2004 Athens Paralympics, told its own story about his resilience as he pushed the last five kilometres on a burst tyre. But even Fearnley had to take a little break after Kokoda.

"It took about six weeks to get back into normal life," he says. "After putting such a different strain on my body I didn't know how I would recover and after a couple of weeks off I jumped into the race chair and felt like a beginner all over again! After a couple of training sessions things started to settle down and after another short break at Christmas I'm back into full training and feel great in the chair.

"The beer at the end was definitely like a carrot to a donkey! Again, it took a while for everything to sink in and over Christmas I got to spend a bit of time with some of the blokes that did the trek with me. It was great to sit down on the balcony, by the beach and over a couple of beers reflect on what we had achieved."

Already, however, Fearnley’s racing instincts are turning towards further achievements in an arena where, like all great champions, his reputation is such that it is enough to defeat some opponents before they reach the start line.

"I don't know what goes through the minds of other athletes," Fearnley reflects. "Only what goes through mine. Every time I sit on the start line I’m thinking about winning and doing everything I can to hit that finish line first.

"The competition in marathons is so strong now that there a number of factors that add up to coming home first - and I'm sure mental application is one of them. All I can do is prepare to the best of my ability, race smart and hope the cards fall my way on the day. If you look at the times of the last few big marathons and they're getting faster and closer. The cards have fallen my way in the last few close ones and I know that I can’t keep winning forever, but I'll enjoy the ride while it continues and keep a tight rein on all of variables I can control."

It's not good reading for his rivals. But it’s a great Paralympics narrative…

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames and will be contributing regularly to insideworldparasport.