Jan. 28, 2010

 

By Greg Johnson
Champion Magazine


Beverly Kearney has overcome the type of obstacles that most people pray they never have to face. The longtime Texas women's track coach has come back stronger every time.

Before Kearney's senior year of high school, her mother died in her sleep after suffering a stroke. Kearney's father, who didn't live with the family at the time, took over the household.

Personality conflicts arose, and Kearney was asked to leave the house without a stable place to go. She's lived on her own since.

Then on December 26, 2002, Kearney was riding in the rear passenger seat of an SUV with a group of close friends headed to Orlando, Florida. The driver, Michelle Freeman, an Olympic bronze medalist in the 400-meter relay for Jamaica in 1996 and a world-class 100-meter hurdler, fell asleep behind the wheel near dawn 35 miles west of Jacksonville.

After the vehicle overturned several times, Ilrey Sparks, an academic counselor for women's athletics at Texas, and Freeman's mother, Muriel Wallace, 63, were dead. Kearney was thrown 50 feet from the vehicle, paralyzed from the waist down with severe back injuries and a skull fracture.

Freeman and Sparks' daughter, Imani, who was about to turn 3, suffered only minor injuries. Kearney underwent three major surgeries, after which doctors told her she would never walk again.

"I was awake at the time of the first rollover, and after that, I woke up on the ground," remembers Kearney, who ran track and field at Hillsborough Community College and Auburn during her student-athlete days.

"Even after coming out of surgery in critical condition, it never seemed like this was a life-altering event for me."

On the contrary, her thoughts were on helping the student-athletes who competed for her at Texas.
"I was looking at what I needed to do as opposed to what I couldn't do," Kearney said. "I usually think of working with what I have and not worrying about what I don't have."

Kearney, who has since developed a foundation called Pursuit of Dreams that helps people move forward with their visions and goals, coached her team from her hospital bed, where she viewed video of practices. All the while, she was undergoing countless hours of rehabilitation, dealing with a severe case of vertigo and ignoring the prognosis that she would never walk again.

Kearney willed herself into taking steps on her own, with the aid of a cane and braces.

Kearney also became the legal guardian of Imani, who is now 10 and a regular visitor to the Longhorns' practice sessions and meets.

"She is the most wonderful blessing one could ever imagine," Kearney said. "If you ever get discouraged and wonder how you'll ever go on, all you have to do is look at her face. Even if you don't want to go on for yourself, how could you quit on her?"

Kearney remains in rehab from the injuries she sustained in the accident. Severe nerve spasms are painful reminders of the incident.

"But I would rather feel pain going through my body than not feel anything," she said.

Her athletics background has contributed to her own rehabilitation, which she works in around her parenting, coaching and motivational-speaking schedule.

"My spiritual beliefs lead me to believe that there is something or someone out there greater than me," said Kearney, who has guided Texas to six NCAA championships (three indoor, three outdoor) since arriving in Austin in 1993. "That gives you a sense of security and makes you feel that failure is not an option."

Being a student-athlete also helped save Kearney from an uncertain life, which is why she has devoted a career to passing on those life skills.

"If I hadn't gone to school, I would've been homeless," Kearney said. "I wanted to take care of myself. It's the same with the accident: Do you want to walk or not? It's not an option. If you gave me a 5 percent chance of walking, I'm not going to worry about the 95 percent who didn't make it - I'll be part of the 5 percent who did."