NZ's 'Rocketman' Robert George Courtney – a brothers' perspective

26 May 2020
Robert Courtney Family
ACCOLADES: Carrick and Stephen Courtney receiving Rob’s unique numbered pin at The Celebration Project, along with Minister Sepuloni and Fiona Allan, PNZ CE.
ⒸGetty Images
By Carrick and Stephen Courtney | For PNZ and IPC

Even before the accident in 1977 that left him a paraplegic, the way Robert George Courtney dogged determination in his sporting activities, especially tennis, was a cue to how he would approach his career as a Para athlete.

A phone call in the middle of the night revealed Rob had an accident resulting in a serious back injury. Brother Carrick drove from New Zealand's capital Auckland to Whangamata to break the news to his parents with a strong sense of despair about Rob's future.

Indeed, when Rob was finally diagnosed with permanent paralysis his first, self-less reaction was to apologise to his parents in case he would be a burden to them. However, any doubts 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. The family’s favourite video footage is of him (see video below), as the outsider, winning gold in the 100m 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, their parents, Bob and Val, played an outstanding role in supporting him.

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 Parafed 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 1980s they accompanied him to a number of international events including the Stoke Mandeville 1984 Paralympics; not to mention events such as the Boston marathon (which he completed in under two hours).

It was impossible for the entire family to continue attending overseas events in the 1980s. Their support was local, attending events or helping with road races.

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 the family was always there to support him.

In 1984 he was appointed a Sports Ambassador for New Zealand 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 the family travelled to USA to be with him.

However, his determination kept breaking through, and he purchased a house in Fresno, where he lived for the next 10 years before returning to his home country in 2002.

When he passed away in 2016, Rob was still a very active member of the Auckland sporting community, especially wheelchair tennis.