Outrunning Fate

When facing hardship, some ask “Why me?”

But Beverly Kearney says she prefers “What next?”

Kearney, an award-winning track and field coach who’s survived homelessness and paralysis, is no stranger to tough times. Her mother passed away in 1975, leaving a 17-year old Kearney to fend for herself. Working two and three jobs to pay for rent, food, and transportation, Kearney made her way through junior college in her hometown of Tampa, Florida, and then Auburn University on track and field scholarships. Afterward, she got her master’s degree in physical education at Indiana State University where she began a coaching career in track and field. Success would follow Kearney over some 28 years with coaching stints at the University of Toledo, University of Tennessee, University of Florida, and the University of Texas.

But hardship caught her yet again. In 2002, Kearney was a passenger in an SUV that flipped over five times, throwing her some 50 feet from the car. The accident left Kearney paralyzed from the waist down, but she was lucky–two of her friends died in the crash. Friends, family, and students would come to her hospital room grief-stricken by Kearney’s battered state and shattered future. “They didn’t think I was going to live,” recalls the 52-year-old. “And then after I lived, they didn’t think I’d ever walk again. I heard people were applying for my job while I was in the hospital.”

But accustomed to motivating her athletes to push past their limits and to see beyond what she calls, “realistic expectations,” the coach immediately applied those same lessons to her own situation. “I never saw the tragedy everybody else saw,” says Kearney, who refused to look at her broken body in the mirror for a month and a half while in the hospital. “Even though I had a back brace and was in critical condition, the only thing I knew was I had had an accident.”

The University of Texas head coach says she mentally prepared to finish this personal race a lot differently than what most speculated–and for good reason. “I had young ladies who had invested in me by attending the school,” adds Kearney. “I knew I could still coach.” So colleagues videotaped the practices as well as track meets so Kearney could watch and evaluate runners from her bedside. “I coached my first indoor national championship from my hospital bed. That year, we won conference and finished fourth in the nation,” she adds with pride. But Kearney didn’t stop there.

In February 2003 when hospital staff were still coming to her room every two or three hours to roll her over to thwart bedsores, Kearney envisioned herself at the annual track and field competition, the Texas Relays, taking place later that year in April. Two months later, after substantial rehabilitation and physical therapy, the coach stood before a crowd of thousands.

Kearney continues to reject the story others have tried to write for her. While cheering on her athletes from the sidelines, she has moved from a wheelchair, to a walker, to two canes, to the one cane she currently uses. But she’s not finished, saying: “Even though year in and year out, I keep being told ‘you’re as good as it’s going to get,’ I know that’s not true.”

Another goal is to inspire people to realize their ambitions. Her Austin, Texas, based mentoring nonprofit foundation, Pursuit of Dreams (www.bevkearneypursuitofdreams.com) works toward just that. Within the organization’s activities and programming, Coach Kearney tells participants to “Believe it. Speak it. Do it.” They need only look to her story to see how.