Beverly Kearney

A tip of the hat to risk-taking, barrier-breaking, establishment-tweaking Texans.

IF THEY EVER MAKE A MOVIE about University of Texas women’s track coach Bev Kearney’s life, which they almost certainly will, the last scene will go like this:

The year is 2005. It is June 11, a warm night in Sacramento, California. Before a packed crowd at Hornet Stadium, the NCAA women’s track and field outdoor national championships are unfolding. The University of Texas, which has brought a mere seven competitors to the meet—one of whom is the stunning sprinter Marshevet Hooker—has amazingly held its own against heavily favored UCLA and South Carolina. Now, after dozens of events featuring thousands of runners, pole-vaulters, and high jumpers, there is only the 4x400 relay left to go.

This relay will settle everything. The noise from the stands, already deafening, has grown even louder from the rhythmic chants of the competing teams. Everyone knows that UT has no chance to win it. At this dramatic moment, Kearney does something unexpected: She rides her motorized scooter away from her team, away from the crowd, to the edge of the field. Alone, she gazes up into the California sky.

She is riding the scooter because she has trouble walking. In December 2002 she was in a car accident in which two people died, including her friend and former NCAA champion runner Ilrey Sparks. Kearney’s spine was smashed and twisted, and a few months ago she was bedridden, with pain so severe she could neither eat nor sleep. As she looks at the sky, she experiences a sudden and remarkable feeling of calm. Then she speaks to her friend Ilrey: “I got it,” she tells her. “I just got it.”

Kearney returns to the track and asks her runners whether they want to try to settle for a top-three finish or go for the win. “Win it all,” they tell her. She then watches one of the most astonishing races she has ever seen, as her underdog Texas team pulls away from the fastest relay teams in the country and wins, bringing a national championship to UT—her fifth since she became head coach, in 1993. In the next moment she is embracing Michelle Freeman, the driver the night of the crash, whom Kearney has helped through depression, and Imani Sparks, the five-year-old daughter of Ilrey, who also survived the accident and whom Kearney is now raising herself. The three just stand there, hugging each other, in grief and victory.

Texas’s miraculous win mirrored Kearney’s miraculous recovery: She ignored doctors’ prognoses that she might never walk again and, over the past year and a half, has proceeded from using a wheelchair to walking with a cane. Kearney, 48, who was only the second black track coach to win an NCAA Division 1 championship (at Florida in 1992; John Thompson, of Georgetown University, was the first), is now better than ever: In 2006 her team won the national indoor championships, and she was named indoor national coach of the year. Although she recently lost Hooker to the pros—a departure as significant to UT as Vince Young’s—Kearney looks to the season ahead. “I think I am a wiser motivator than I was before,” she says. “I utilize my time more precisely. I have a greater understanding of who I am.”

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