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News posted on Thursday 21st May, 2020

Paralympian #48 Robert George Courtney – a brothers perspective

Steve and Carrick on stage receiving Rob's unique numbered pin with Fiona Allan and Minister Sepuloni

Even before his accident in 1977 that left him a T12 paraplegic, Rob’s dogged determination in his sporting activities especially tennis, was a clue to how he would approach his career as a Para athlete.

The phone call came in the middle of the night where it was revealed he’d had an accident resulting in a serious back injury. Carrick’s long drive during the night, from Auckland to Whangamata, to break the news to our parents was accompanied by a strong sense of despair about the future.

Indeed, when Rob was finally diagnosed with permanent paralysis his first, self-less reaction was to apologise to our parents in case he’d be a burden to them. However, any despair quickly gave way to hope and admiration. Rob essentially changed direction and focused on what he could do and applied the same determination to rise to the top of his chosen sports, especially Para athletics.

By the early 1980s he was performing at a world-class level. At the Fespic Games in Hong Kong in 1982 he was an outstanding performer and first earned the nickname “Rocketman“. At the Stoke Mandeville 1984 Paralympic Games, he won gold and broke world records. Our favorite video footage is of him (see video below), as the outsider, winning gold in the 100 metre sprint against a world class field, and in world record time.  

From the moment of Rob’s life changing injury in 1977 right throughout his amazing sporting career, and beyond, our parents, Bob and Val, played an outstanding role in supporting Rob.

Mum was a superb organiser and true to form she involved herself in all aspects of the Para sport community, and was President of the Auckland Paraplegic and Physically Disabled Association (today Disability Sport Auckland) for many years, actively fundraising hundreds of thousands of dollars and creating a trust for Para sport activities.

Dad was always there helping out with numerous sporting and fundraising activities. When Rob’s international sporting career took off from the early 1980’s they accompanied him to a number of international events including the Hong Kong Fespic Games in 1982, and the Stoke Mandeville 1984 Paralympic Games in the UK; not to mention events such as the Boston marathon (which he completed in under 2 hours ).

We had young families in the 1980s, and 18-22% interest mortgages, so it was impossible for us to attend the overseas events, so our support was local, attending events or helping on the road with road races etc.

Rob was totally committed to training, regardless of the weather, doing countless kilometres of roadwork. Steve got the occasional phone call to pick him up because of a flat tyre; once for a broken axle – whatever the situation we were always there to support him!

In 1984 he was appointed a Sports Ambassador for NZ by the Rt Hon Mike Moore in recognition of his contribution to Para sport. Soon after, he moved the United States on a scholarship to Dallas University, where he continued his sporting success. Unfortunately, his health started declining in the early 1990s and we travelled to the States to be with him during a particularly serious episode. 

However, his dogged determination kept breaking through, and he purchased a house in Fresno whilst we were there, where he lived for the next 10 years before returning to NZ in 2002. When he passed away in 2016, Rob was still a very active member of the Auckland sporting community, especially Wheelchair tennis.

Carrick and Stephen Courtney (Rob’s brothers)

Find out more about Paralympian #48 Robert Courtney

Cover photo: Carrick and Stephen Courtney receiving Rob’s unique numbered pin at The Celebration Project, along with Minister Sepuloni and Fiona Allan, PNZ CE. Credit Getty Images.

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