Champion athlete and advocate for people with disabilities Kurt Fearnley has accepted an Honorary Doctorate from Griffith University with a stirring acceptance speech calling on graduates to build strength of character guided by the motto, ‘I am …’.

In his Occasional Address, delivered to hundreds of graduates Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition centre in late December, Fearnley said that strength comes from an inner voice, rather than a muscle.

“I remember the moment where I realised what strength actually is … real strength is not a bicep; it’s not a muscle — the strongest muscle each and every one of us has is in here (the heart), and we need to look at it and build it,” he said.

The genesis of Fearnley’s remarkable achievements, which include three Paralympic gold medals and two Commonwealth Games gold medals, was a pact he made with himself as a 22 year old to use what he called the two most powerful words: “I am”.

“I am going to be the strongest. I am going to leave my sport better than the way I found it. I am going to do everything within my power to make this country a little more aware,” he told the students.

As an athlete, Fearnley is a physical embodiment of strength, but he said that real strength comes from character and conviction. It was that strength of character that got Kurt across the line in first place in the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games marathon.

“You may train 10 years to be able to run a marathon, but to win it you may have to rip that physical strength down in the first 60 seconds and then what will carry you over that course? Expectation,” Fearnley said.

“I know the strongest and most valuable thing in each and every person is that voice. You are the person that will build the voice in yourself, but also build the voice in every person around you. Are you the one that will go into a room and make that room stronger?”

Griffith University Deputy Vice Chancellor (Engagement), Martin Betts, explained why Fearnley is held in such high esteem.

“At the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in April this year, Mr Kurt Fearnley not only performed brilliantly as an athlete, but truly stamped himself as a defining symbol of aspiration, inspiration, humility and unity,” Prof Betts said.

He said Fearnley held a status as a role model for all sport — disabled and able-bodied — and as an ambassador for a better, more inclusive and united society. As such, he was receiving the honorary title for service to the community as an advocate for people with a disability, and for service to sport.

“Over many years Mr Kurt Fearnley has achieved extraordinary sporting success at the highest level. At the same time, he has emerged as a role model in sport and beyond it, spanning the disabled and able-bodied. That he has done so with such humility and dignity speaks to his character and serves as an inspiration to others,” Professor Betts said.

In November, Fearnley was named the NSW Australian of the Year. The Australian of the Year is chosen from the eight state and territory nominees on Australia Day, 26 January.