From wheelchair, track coach fires up her team
Thu Mar 13, 8:00 AM ET Add Sports - USA TODAY to My Yahoo!

Dick Patrick USA TODAY

Texas women's track coach Beverly Kearney gathered her team Wednesday for what one athlete called ''the usual'' pre-national championships speech.

Kearney was in a wheelchair in Room 326 of the St. David Rehabilitation Center in Austin, where she has been much of the time since a Dec. 26 auto accident took the lives of two friends and left her with a spinal cord injury that has prevented her from walking.

The Lady Longhorns will compete in the NCAA (news - web sites) Indoor Championships on Friday and Saturday in Fayetteville, Ark. They're No. 4 in the Trackwire poll that has LSU No. 1.

''I'm going for the win,'' says Kearney, 45, who has won four NCAA titles at Texas and one at Florida. She won't be with the team. She'll be celebrating a personal victory, being cleared to leave St. David on Friday and go home for the first time in 3 1/2 months.

The spirit of a woman who watches videos of practice in her hospital room will be with the Longhorns. ''It was a very lifting speech to see somebody telling us to fight in the condition she was in previously and is in now,'' hurdler and 400-meter runner Raasin McIntosh says. ''If you don't want to be the best you can be after that, if you're not moved, then something has got to be wrong on the inside. We're going in there like we have nothing to lose.''

The team takes its cue from a coach who vows to walk or at least stand from her wheelchair at the Texas track during the April 2-5 Texas Relays. Kearney has had three operations since the accident in Sanderson, Fla., which came as she, Ilrey Sparks, Imani Sparks, Muriel Wallace and Michelle Freeman were going to Disney World.

Freeman, a world-class hurdler, lost control of a sport-utility vehicle that crossed the median on Interstate 10 and rolled several times. She and Imani Sparks, 3, were not seriously hurt. Ilrey Sparks, an academic counselor for athletes, and Wallace, Freeman's mother, were killed. Like Ilrey Sparks, Kearney was ejected from the vehicle. At first, Kearney felt as if she were in a dream.

''I was in the hospital laughing and joking, not knowing I had a huge bandage on my head with staples in my scalp and scars all over my face,'' Kearney says. ''As I became more aware, I didn't want to see myself that way. I refused to see myself as a cripple.''

Despite a positive attitude, she has had low moments. The worst came when Kearney opened a letter to find a card containing a picture of Sparks.

''That was the point everything hit me. I was also going through some pain and everyone -- therapists, doctors, nurses, specialists -- was telling me what they wanted me to do. I was overwhelmed.''

Kearney finds inspiration in the memory of her lost friends. ''I miss them dearly,'' she says, ''but they're in a better place than I am. I feel they're still inside me. I want to be the best for them.''

Kearney also draws on the lessons of a difficult life. She was the sixth of her mother's seven children, fathered by five men.

''I can't begin to tell you what we went through,'' she says. ''My mom abused alcohol; my father wasn't around much. We had every vice in our family and around us -- drugs, alcohol, prostitution.

''Everybody adapts to that environment differently. I became determined not to live like that. How I knew there was a better life, I don't know. It's not like I had examples around me.''

Her mother died when Kearney was a high school senior. Kearney was on her own after graduation. Helped by junior college coaches, she earned a track scholarship to Auburn, while also financing, through government need-based Pell Grants, her younger brother's college education.

''I'm a person bent not on surviving but succeeding,'' she says. ''There was no question I was going to college. What I didn't understand at the time is that whenever I got to a point where I didn't know where to go or felt alone, God always provided someone to help me through.

''They didn't carry me. They helped me.''

That's what Kearney wants to do in coaching. ''I want to help kids make it,'' she says. ''I want to be the bridge, not the road. Too often people impassioned about helping others want to be the road. You can't carry people. You can help them get to the other side to continue their journey.''

Kearney's recovery is ahead of schedule. She's using a walker and has shed a back brace four months early. She dates her rapid progress to a revelation last month.

''I've always been the giver,'' she says. ''God told me it's time to allow people to give back. That's a blessing as much as giving.''