Editor’s Note: When Bryan Kirkland of Leeds, Alabama, lay in the dirt after a tragic motocross accident, he hoped he only had a pinched nerve. But when he discovered that he had a spinal cord injury and never would walk or probably play sports again, this 6’5” 205 pound athlete thought his world was over. The last place he ever thought he would be years later was on the stage with some of the greatest athletes his home state ever had produced. One of the most successful Paralympians ever with gold, silver and bronze medals in wheelchair rugby and a gold medal in the World Games’ track and field, Kirkland was selected to be enshrined in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in May 2012. He also broke the barrier for wheelchair athletes to be inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame and opened the door for more wheelchair athletes to be recognized across in the United States. Part 5 of a 5 part series.
In 2010, Kirkland retired from wheelchair rugby, but he’s still a competitive racer and does 5Ks, 10Ks, 15Ks and half-marathons. He also retired from the international track scene but tells us, “Now I race for recreation, but I’m still competitive. I still race to win. One of the things that I’m really grateful for is my job at Home Depot. I started working for Home Depot, and I wouldn’t have been able to compete in as many World Games and Olympic Games as I did, if I hadn’t been a part of the Home Depot’s Olympic work program. Home Depot allowed me to work part time and train. My training counted as work, so I earned a salary for 40 hours a week. The company also allowed me to have a flexible work schedule to accommodate my competitive travel schedule. There were other wheelchair athletes on this same program companywide besides me. When I first started on the Home Depot program, there were about 200 Olympic athletes companywide involved in this same type of program, including both wheelchair and able bodied athletes. What was really rewarding at work was the people that I worked with at Home Depot were so excited at what I was achieving in athletics. They really embraced the idea of having an Olympic athlete working at their store. Everyone I worked with at Home Depot was very supportive of me and the competitions in which I competed. They were behind me 100%, and their encouragement and support really helped me. Today I am working full time at Home Depot, and I compete on my off days.”
Kirkland was nominated by Birmingham, Alabama’s Lakeshore Foundation for consideration in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, the most prestigious awards program for athletes in his home state. Up until this year, no other wheelchair athlete had been elected to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. The selection committee reviewed Kirkland’s accomplishments and deemed him one of the greatest athletes ever in his home state of Alabama. Kirkland’s class of inductees included Coach Mal Moore, the athletic director for the University of Alabama, Charlie Pell, an All American selection and professional football player as well as coach, Artis Gilmore, who obtained fame and fortune in professional basketball, and several others. ‘This is one of the greatest honors I ever have had in my life,” Kirkland says. “I think that to be recognized as an athlete who just happens to have a disability is a tremendous accomplishment and an honor that my family and I never will forget. I feel very privileged to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, and I hope that I have opened the door for other athletes with disabilities to be recognized in their states.
“One aspect of becoming a member of the Hall of Fame that’s often overlooked is that this prestigious award is earned not given. Hard work, dedication of purpose, overcoming problems and never quitting until you win are the same ingredients required of disabled athletes that are required for able bodied athletes. I don’t feel like any award should be given to anybody in athletics. I believe that recognition is earned. I don’t know about anyone else, but my accomplishments were a team effort – not only by my rugby team and my track team, but also my support team, my family, my wife, the Lakeshore Foundation and everyone who’s been a part of my life during my competitive years. Also my co-workers at Home Depot all have contributed to and are a part of my success.”
Today, Kirkland realizes that since he was injured, didn’t give up and drove himself to be the best he could be, he’s accomplished more in sports as a physically challenged athlete than he ever would have accomplished as a whole-body athlete. He has traveled the world, competed for Olympic gold and world championships and set world records. Kirkland and other wheelchair athletes have taught us all how to endure tragedy, how to overcome injury and how to use what appears to be devastating disasters to reach goals of which they never even may have dreamed.
About the Author: For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at http://www.nighthawkpublications.com