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 3 of a 5 part series.
“When I got home from rehab, I tried to regain my strength and exercised to get stronger. I worked on my endurance, extending my wheelchair walks and trying to go farther and farther each day. My constant support was my girlfriend, Shai, who was there before my accident, during recovery and rehab, and has been my wife for 15 years. She kept saying, ‘We’ll work through this, and you and I are going to last. Life may be different, but we’re going to make it.’ She was my best friend before the accident, and she’s my best friend today. Shai was a senior in high school when I got hurt, and I’d only been out of high school for 2 years. She’s tough. She has always been my rock. We decided that we weren’t going to let this accident and this wheelchair define our relationship. We resolved not to let my injury determine whether we would stay together or not. I was really lucky to find a woman like her. Five years after my accident, we were married.
“Before we married, I went back to college, got my own apartment and started figuring out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I took computer programming at Jefferson State Community College when I went back to school. Although I made all A’s in my courses, I decided I didn’t want to be a computer programmer. I’d always been active, and I wanted to continue to be active. I took a job at a clothing store, Parisian’s, as a security specialist watching video cameras for shoplifters and catching thieves for about 5 years. My next job was for Home Depot, where I still work today and have been working there for 12 years. I went to work for Home Depot in 1999, and in 2000, I made the Wheelchair Olympic Rugby Team that won a gold medal at the Summer Paralympics.
Home Depot gave me an opportunity to be a part of the Olympic job program that the company once offered to Olympic athletes. The program allowed me to work 20 hours and then train and travel, so that I could compete. I went to Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham the summer after I got hurt. I met another fellow named Tommy Sullivan, who became a friend and later a teammate. He told me about wheelchair rugby. I’d never heard of that sport before. I really loved the idea of being out on the court and hitting someone like I did in football. Several people told me what I needed to do to start. 5 months after my injury, I was on the rugby court.”
“I really love the physical nature of wheelchair rugby. I think I could almost play football in a wheelchair. When I started, I knocked over quite a few players, before I finally got knocked over myself. When you get knocked over, someone always comes and helps you get back up again, so you then can go knock some more people over. Rugby is a great sport. I started going to Lakeshore and practicing rugby at least every other day, but most of the time I went every day. I also would work out in the weight room to get stronger and faster. I was able to be an athlete again. I had the opportunity to see just how hard and far I could push my body. I wanted to see how good I could be at playing rugby. I wanted to find out just how fast I could be. Every day I was learning new tips to become a better rugby player. I really enjoyed going to tournaments and once again playing to win. Rugby and other sports helped me get back into life, instead of sitting on the sidelines.”
Next: Athlete Bryan Kirkland Turns Up The Heat In Wheelchair Rugby
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