#5 Kurt Fearnley
You want to talk about a nice guy? Well that is the Kurt Fearnley you will see hanging around the hotel lobby before and after the race. Or the guy smiling from ear to ear as he sociably moved from person to person at gatherings. The Australian racer had a real Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde syndrome going. Hanging out with the always funny, always smiling good time Kurt Fearnley was absolutely nothing like the stone cold killer he was when he strapped the helmet on and the gun fired. Fearnley’s style was to constantly push the pace and never let up. His constant attacks in the pack made it so that racers had no time to let their guards down, and it often resulted in major wins. Having little weight made getting down the hills a challenge for Fearnley, however he made up for that by bringing a super high level of fitness to the table. Not only that, he was a superb hill climber as evidenced by the fact that he won the Peachtree 10k, a race with a long hard grinding hill in both 2007 and 2008. His significant road wins included, New York City 5 times, setting a course record of 1:29:22 in 2006. He won the Los Angeles Marathon in 2005 and again in 2007 setting a course record of 1:23:40. Knowing the LA course, and just how tough it was, this feat was amazing. In 2016 he came within inches of getting a Boston win, winding up 3rd in a sprint to Hug and Van Dyk. He captured 2 Paralympic Marathons, both 2004 in Athens and 2008 Beijing. His Paralympic career spanned 4 games and netted a total of 13 medals including 3 gold medals. Fearnley has too many distinguished recognition’s from his country to mention and has written a book titled, Pushing the Limits. A savvy racer who just knew how to make the best of his game Kurt Fearnley has earned his spot as #5 on list of the greatest!
#4 Saul Mendoza
Covering the Los Angeles Marathons during the peak of chair racing I witnessed Saul Mendoza win under nearly every circumstance. Just feet from the motorcycle I watched as he battled side by side with the best, and somehow came away with the win–7 times! In 2000 Los Angeles had perhaps the worst downpour on a race I had ever seen, so bad in fact that the helicopter carrying the satellite dish for the Chair race refused to fly! I sat in the studio listening to the hard rain literally bleeding through the roof and interfering with the quality of the sound. The racers had to be in absolute agony as it was really cold too. About 25 miles in the producer said they had a camera who caught the lead chair heading into the final stretch. When the picture appeared it was Mendoza, literally up to his rear hub passing through a water channel in an intersection! Sometimes really adverse situations make certain people fold the tent, but not Mendoza. He was just the kind of champion that took on the worst possible conditions and turned it into another victory. Beyond winning LA 4 times in a row, he went on to capture 2 more in 2003 and again in 2008. His road career was very diverse and complete winning the Peachtree 10k and setting the course record on both occasions. In 1999 he posted a time of 19:05 and then in 2004 he ran an unbelievable 18:38, a record that stood for 14 years! Along the way he picked up 2 New York City Marathon victories and also won once in London. Over the course of 4 Paralympic games Mendoza earned 2 gold, 1 silver and 3 bronze medals. But his shining moment on the track was winning the 1500 meter Exhibition event at the Sydney Olympics. “The single greatest win I have ever had was winning 1500 meter gold at the 2000 Olympic Games.” It was historical for Mexican sports and earned him the title of Mexico’s Athlete of the 20th Century! Thus Saul Mendoza notches #4.
#3 Franz Nietlispach
To say the least, the tiny town of Hopkinton close to the start line of the Boston Marathon is like an outdoor music festival. Helicopters flying overhead, multiple news teams all trying to get the best out of the moments before the start of the race make it electric in a way no other road race ever did. I waited outside the gymnasium for Franz to come out to do a pre-race interview. As he emerged the station I worked with went immediately live with us as he still had many things to do before embarking on his 26 mile journey. Calm, cool and collected is the least of what I can say about Nietlispach. While most were moving around frantically you might have thought he was going to take his race chair down the road to the store to get milk for his cereal. That’s just how he was, and it was just how he raced. Cool! He had such a dominate period between 1995 and 2000, winning Boston 5 times, a streak that was only interrupted by countryman Heinz Frei in 1996. Beyond knowing the familiar characteristics of the racers of that era, I had a basic formula I plugged in that made me look smarter than I was on TV. How well does a racer Coast/go downhill, what are his climbing skills and does he carry the endurance and speed to win when push came to shove. In all categories Nietlispach was between an 8 and 9 on a scale of 1-10. That is all except for his downhill speed where he was an off the charts 12! When he got that motor running and dropped into his tuck he was simply unstoppable. If everybody else was going 40 mph, then Franz was going 45. For those who know the Boston course these are very favorable attributes and he used them in a savvy way to his advantage. His best time in all his Boston wins was a speedy 1:21:36. Beyond Boston was his versatility on the track. He competed in every Paralympic Games from 1976-2008 in Beijing when a shoulder injury finally put a halt to his chair racing. During that time period though Nietlispach won a staggering 14 gold, 6 silver and 2 bronze medals, and to boot he’s held 20 world titles! It’s pretty easy to see why Franz Nietlispach was my pick for #3.