cars totaled in an accident

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Beverly Kearney’s life is all about speed and winning.  She’s the legendary head coach of the University of Texas women’s track and field team.  Under her leadership, the Longhorns have claimed six national championships.  Over her career, she’s led teams to seven national titles, the most by any African-American college coach.  She’s also been named the NCAA’s Coach of the Year more times than she can count.  Literally, she’s lost track.  In 2004, she was inducted in the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.  On the track and in life, Bev is a Fighter, driven to succeed.

But on December 26, 2002, Bev and some friends were driving through Florida en route to a Christmas vacation at Disney World.  It was dawn when their Lexus SUV swerved across the median of Interstate 10 and flipped at least four times.  Bev wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and was thrown 50 feet from the vehicle.  Two friends died on the scene including Ilrey Sparks, a 40-year-old academic counselor at UT and former Jamaican Olympic track star.  Three passengers survived including Ilrey’s two-year old daughter Imani.  When paramedics found Bev on the pavement, she was barely breathing.  Her spinal cord was badly injured, a chunk of her back had been ripped out, her skull was fractured, and she was bruised all over.

When she woke up in the Shands Jacksonville Medical Center, Bev had no idea that she was paralyzed below the waist.  Doctors explained that two of her friends had died in the crash.  The infant Imani, they said, was just fine.  They also told Bev that she would never walk again.  Looking back, Bev says she couldn’t really process everything at once and never even thought about herself.  She heard the doctors use words like “severe injuries” and “paralyzed legs,” but she refused to accept them as facts.  Over the next month, she went through three major surgeries and lost more than 40 pounds.  She couldn’t eat or digest food, suffered from a severe case of vertigo, and her body had to be moved every few hours all night long.  The pain was excruciating, but Bev joked and laughed through it all with the nurses.

With help of family and staff from the university, Bev decorated every wall of her hospital room with posters, signs, messages and flowers.  If people seemed depressed or down when they visited her, she kicked them out of the room.  “It isn’t a funeral,” she said.  “It’s a place of healing.”  Bev believed her room was a sanctuary in a hospital full of sick people.  She moved all of her athletic meetings there, refusing to let the accident get in the way of her team.  There were days of agonizing pain and more surgery, but she kept fighting to get well.

One of things I do have is the innate ability to read a situation very quickly,” Bev says.  I have the ability to adapt.”  And she also had a game plan to win.  She refused to accept life in a wheelchair.  She was determined walk.  In the hospital, Bev saw a poster advertising the Texas Relays in Austin, one of the biggest track and field competitions in the country.  More than 20,000 fans attend and as many as 9,000 athletes compete.  The Longhorns would be there, and she decided that she would stand up by herself in Mike A. Myers Stadium.  The meet was only weeks away, but Bev had made up her mind.  Sure enough, one bright April day with 20,000 people cheering, she stood up on her own.  Within a year of the accident, Beverly had abandoned her wheelchair.   One year later, she traded her walker for two canes.  After a couple of years, she only needed one cane to keep her balance.  At age 45, Bev adopted Imani, the girl who survived the accident that morning.  Five years after the accident, Imani began to call her mom.

When did Bev become a Fighter?  She says she learned to fend for herself before she even turned 10.  Her mother drank too much, her father was never around, and around eighth grade, Bev began working at dry cleaning shop in Tampa, Florida.  From the start, she knew she didn’t want spend her life washing and ironing other people’s clothes.  Hardened by her mother’s abuse and her father’s absence, she wanted a better life.  Bev was a Fighter before she was even a teenager.  “I think everything we go through in life prepares us for the next thing in life,” she says. “And whether that is to get through the successes or the tragedies, we are prepared by life.  I don’t think there is an ‘ah ha’ moment.  I think each moment in our lives is the ‘ah ha’ moment.”

It wasn’t an easy road, and Bev often had to take care of herself, but her childhood readied her for just about any challenge.  She graduated from high school, and thanks to a mentor, she applied to college where she stumbled into coaching and athletics.  At age 29, she became the head coach for women’s track and field at the University of Florida, the youngest in the history of the college.  As an African American woman, Bev says she has faced fierce racism and sexism at every turn.  There were times, she thinks, when it would have been easier to give up and to stop fighting for her dreams.  But she was always determined to forge ahead.  “I learned to move on,” she says.  “No matter what happened, celebrate it and move on. No matter how tragic someone else views something, move on.”

Since her accident, Bev has coached the Longhorns from a hospital bed, a wheelchair, and a walker.  Someday, she’ll stand without a cane.  Her team has won one national championship since the crash, and they’re sure to win more. To support young women in need, Bev launched her own foundation, Pursuit of Dreams.
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