Imagine, for a moment, that you are seventeen, just a slip of a thing, all elbows and knees but with bright, determined eyes. At the mercy of your mama, you have lived in so many places and gone to so many schools you can’t remember them all. Mississippi, California, Illinois, Nebraska. Sometimes you and your little brother spend all day hiding from her rages at the movies, watching the same show over and over till they shoo you out. Sometimes she’ll gamble with you for your lunch money in a card game, and when you lose, you go hungry.
There are only two things that separate you from the other raggedy kids you’ve seen all your life. One is that you are smart. The other is that you are fast. Your long legs and strong thighs can move you like lightning down a crooked sidewalk or around a dusty track. In high school you win medals for your speed, and the coaches marvel at your gift. But you don’t run for them. You run because you have to, because you long for movement—the sight of tall pines shooting by as you fly down a dirt road. That movement is home.
March 30, 2013, in Austin was the kind of spring day that portends the unbearable summer to come. The clouds were heavy and gray, and the air was thick—not an optimal day for running, but the athletes who crowded into Mike A. Myers Stadium at the University of Texas for the last day of the Texas Relays were undeterred. The Texas Relays is, after all, the most important track-and-field event in the state and one of the most important in the nation, drawing some 6,000 high school, college, and professional competitors from across the country. About 20,000 spectators had come to witness the weekend’s speed events—sprints, hurdles, relays—and to catch sight of big names like four-time Olympic gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross. Inside the stadium, they crammed into the bleachers to watch as the runners burned up the track, wearing uniforms in electric shades of purple and red, green and yellow—and, for UT, bright white.
It was a mostly black crowd, unusual in Austin, maybe, but not in the world of track and field, a sport dominated in the U.S. by African Americans. Over the years, the Texas Relays has morphed into a kind of South by Southwest for ambitious black Americans, who travel to Austin not only to watch the runners but to network with athletes, politicians, executives, and even movie stars. The weekend’s activities are hardly confined to the track: witness the after-parties, galas, and concerts held around town, including the Austin Urban Music Festival, which has taken place on the same weekend since 2006.
For most of the past two decades, the reigning queen of the Texas Relays was Beverly Kearney, the head coach of the University of Texas women’s track-and-field team. Bev, as she is known to almost everyone, was one of the most acclaimed coaches in the country. She had produced more Olympic contenders and NCAA champions than any other track coach in the history of UT. She was a three-time NCAA outdoor coach of the year, a two-time NCAA indoor coach of the year, and a fifteen-time conference coach of the year. Every spring at the Texas Relays, young women with their heads full of Olympic dreams would crowd toward the track just for a glimpse of her. A slight woman who normally kept her face plain and her hair pulled back, Kearney embraced her celebrity at these races: she’d get her hair and makeup done, and she’d accessorize her black track pants with a black T-shirt studded with rhinestones in the shape of a Longhorn. “I’d always have some bling on,” Kearney, now 55, told me recently. “I’d never wear traditional Longhorn gear.”
Kearney was also the star of the weekend’s non-athletic events. She had established a nonprofit organization to mentor college and high school students, the Pursuit of Dreams Foundation, and during the Relays she would host the Minority Mentorship Symposium. The affair drew high-profile figures—dubbed Gents of Distinction and Divine Divas—from the worlds of sports, politics, business, and entertainment to serve as inspirational speakers for students. Banquets held over the weekend were likely to feature Kearney honoring hip-hop star Eve or former state representative Wilhelmina Delco or actor Hill Harper (best known as Dr. Sheldon Hawkes on CSI:NY) or state Supreme Court chief justice Wallace Jefferson. During the weekend Kearney also put on a leadership conference at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders and organized youth rallies. She seemed to be everywhere at once.
She was a magnetic, inspiring presence, and not only because of her success in Austin. In a near-fatal car accident in 2002, Kearney had been paralyzed from the waist down, and yet she now walked with two canes, like a mountain climber in a blizzard. Added to her already impressive life story—she had risen from a poor and rootless childhood, overcoming countless obstacles—the accident made her a formidable role model and a universal symbol of perseverance. “Failure is not an option,” she liked to say, and she was living proof of her own maxim.
That is, until this past spring, when Kearney was nowhere to be found at the 2013 Texas Relays. She didn’t ride onto the track on her burnt-orange scooter. No Divine Divas or Gents of Distinction were honored by her Pursuit of Dreams Foundation. At the parties held that weekend, there was no sign of the woman who had inspired so many people. That’s because right after Christmas, to the shock of many in the world of track and field and beyond, UT and Kearney had bitterly parted ways.