Peter Kirby was a champion runner, by the age of 19 he had competed in the 1984 New York Paralympics, where he won five medals and was the first Aboriginal Australian to win gold for the athletics.
By
Laura Morelli

13 Sep 2016 - 4:16 PM  UPDATED 13 Sep 2016 - 4:16 PM

"It was midnight in Sydney but I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to tell someone back home in Australia so I picked up the phone and called my mum."

“I’ve got some news for you,” I said. By the time she picked up the phone she was still half asleep. “Hello, yes what is it, is something wrong?” she answered.

I took a deep breath and said “I won a gold medal for the relay but don’t tell anyone.” I could tell she was happy and proud because she promised me she wouldn’t tell anyone my big news, but when I got back everyone already knew.

From a young age, Peter Kirby enjoyed racing. He was just 13 years old when he lost his forearm and right hand after touching a fallen power line, but that didn’t stop him from trying.

“I was in hospital for over 18 weeks and when I got out I didn’t let no arm bring me down,” he said.

“I always rode my bike, played footy and soccer and in the back of my mind, I always dreamed of winning a gold medal, but I never thought it would become a reality.”

Even his school teacher, Phil Jackson remembered Kirby as a true champion with natural talent.

"When I started teaching at Eden High in 1979, Peter was a champion runner. At 19 he competed in the Paralympics in New York in 1984 (winning 5 medals) and was the first Aboriginal Australian to win a gold medal - what an achievement." 

I got a call from a guy in Batemans Bay - he only had one arm as well. He told me that I’d been invited to run at a carnival in Pagewood with all kinds of people from all over the state.

"Out of the whole entire race, I was the only one to run barefoot."

"I didn’t know about shoes with spikes and things like that. All I knew was that I could run - and boy could I run fast."

"I ran the 100, 200, 400 barefoot and won every single one. During the races there was a mixture of able bodied people. I remember one guy, he had no hands at all and a few others just had one hand like me."

"When I was 18 I went for my first time trial for the Olympics. There was about 12 people there with one arm missing – I came first in that...The time you had to beat was something like 15 seconds and I remember thinking I could walk this in 15 seconds."

Kirby also won a silver medal in in the Men’s 4x400m relay A4-9 race, and three bronze medals in the Men's 100m A6, Men's 400m A4-9 and Men's Long Jump A6, but his all-time favourite memory of racing was running in the relay race in New York.

"I ran first for the relay selections, I passed it on to a guy with no leg who then passed it on to my mate with one arm and then he passed it on to another guy who had an amputation just above his knee. We won gold for that and made a record time."

"I remember my first race – I was so nervous – I broke four times (false started) and I was warned that if I did it again I was out."

For the small town Wiradjuri man, describing what it’s like to win gold is ‘almost impossible.’

“I was happy and proud to win it with my mates. We didn’t think anything of it at the time, just that we couldn’t stop cheering,” he said.

“Your entire body tingles, you know you’ve won – everyone’s clapping and it’s just an amazing feeling. Coming from a small country town I didn’t ever imagine I’d make it that far.”

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I’ve always had a lot of support from my family, they’ve been my biggest inspiration for me to win.

His mother said ever since he was little he was cheeky, but he was a good boy and always very determined. 

"Before his big game everyone told him that he wouldn’t do any good... but this made him run even faster, to prove them he could win and he did," she said.

After America Kirby went to Melbourne for the Australian games back in 1995, and that’s where he met his idol, USA athletics Olympian, Carl Lewis.

“He came up to me and I’ve never forgotten the words he said:

‘I know you - you’re that little Aboriginal runner people keep talking about!’

And I thought 'wow what an honour to be heard of by this man'.”

“It’s funny, ever since then, my Aunty still keeps in contact with him, she sends Aboriginal things to America like emu eggs and Boomerangs.”

"When I was in Melbourne, a few people in the relay team tried to kick me out because there was a young guy who came in and they thought he could run faster than me. I dug my heels in and said no.

"I told them that I ran in America and managed to get gold there so why not run here too. We ended up coming second but Australia owned the fastest world record for that one."

Kirby also played Rugby League for the Eden Tigers, Pambula-Merimbula Bulldogs and South Coast United. He also played soccer for over 11 years and found that it helped his legs stay young.

"I’m thinking my next race will be the Veteran one for over 50’s. I still like to work out at my age, and my biggest tip is to enjoy yourself."

Looking back on everything now, Kirby is proud of his efforts and looks forward to the next generation making their mark.

"Seeing Aboriginal runners these days in the Paralympics makes me feel proud that they’re having a go. Whatever you do, don’t lose sight of your dream – if you want it bad enough you’ll get there."