05/26/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
As one of America's top women's track and field coaches, Bev Kearney of the University of Texas has paced countless miles along stadium sidelines, cheering on her athletes. But at the Texas Relays in Austin April 5, it was her turn to hear some noise. When she stood at the microphone, 20,000 fans roared—not for her five national championships or the six Olympic medalists she has mentored, but for the fact that she could stand at all. Kearney, 45, has been confined to a wheelchair since a December car accident that killed two friends and left her paralyzed below the knees. Soon after the tragedy, she made a vow: By this track meet she would be on her feet "It's been a long road," she told the crowd. "But I'm here."
Only through sheer force of will. On Dec. 26, Kearney was on Interstate 10 outside Jacksonville, Fla., en route to Disney World, when she was involved in a rollover accident. At the wheel was her housemate Michelle Freeman, 34, a 1996 Olympic bronze medalist in the 400-meter relay; with them in the SUV were Freeman's mother, Muriel Wallace, 63; University of Texas academic counselor Ilrey Sparks, 40; and Sparks's 2-year-old daughter Imani. Sparks and Wallace died, while Freeman and the child suffered minor injuries. Kearney, without a seatbelt in the back seat, was thrown to the road.
"This lady was there with the gentlest voice," she recalls. "She told me everything would be all right." In fact the passerby was not so sure. "I thought she was dead," says Trish Meehan, 32, a sales rep. "Then I felt a faint pulse. 'Stay with us,' I said."
Kearney had suffered two fractured vertebrae and a herniated disc, requiring three operations. She spent six weeks at St. David's Rehabilitation Hospital in Austin before taking her first halting steps, tightly grasping two parallel bars. The next 18 months are crucial, says her physician Dr. Joe Volpe, but she has a good chance of recovering fully. And even if she ends up walking with braces, he adds, "her limitations will be whatever she sets for herself."
That would mean none at all, as her athletes attest. "Just being around Bev Kearney, from how much energy she puts into coaching and into you as a person, you can't help but want to achieve better things," says Carlette Guidry, 35, two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 4 x 100 relay.
Kearney has vaulted obstacles from the start. Her late mother, Bertha, was a sometimes abusive alcoholic who had five children by four men when she wed Air Force Sgt. Beverly Kearney, now 69; two years later Bev was born. "Sunday through Thursday my mother was the most loving, giving person," she says. "But on Fridays and Saturdays, I don't know who that wild woman was who showed up drunk, cursing and fighting."
Kearney—who doesn't drink, smoke or swear—moved often with her family, finally settling in Tampa, where she became a high school basketball and track star. She won a scholarship to Alabama's Auburn University and was eventually named the school's top female athlete. After graduating with a degree in social work, she did coaching stints in Indiana, Tennessee and Florida before coming to Texas in 1993.
To many athletes, Kearney has been more than a coach. "She's my guardian angel, my best friend, sister and mother," says senior Moushaumi Robinson, 22, an Ail-American in the 200 and 400 meters. But she's also a taskmaster: "Tash, remember, stay to the inside!" she called from her wheelchair at the Texas Relays. "Moushaumi, watch that foot! Open it up, K.D.!"
Kearney has set typically ambitious goals for herself: to walk unaided by August and to jog by next summer. Meanwhile, she undergoes physical therapy and grapples with the pain. "It shoots down my legs like an electric shock," she says. "Occasionally I'll cry from frustration—but just for a minute, then I'm back. I'm going to be all right."
Gabrielle Cosgriff and Shermakaye Bass in Austin