Good as gold: Paralympian Bryan Kirkland turned tragedy into triumph
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama --
Bryan Kirkland's life was always about adjusting.
When the Jefferson State basketball program disbanded after his freshman season, the 6-foot-5 Leeds High grad found a new sport, motocross.
And when an accident on his bike left his body broken, he moved on to the next chapter of his life, as one of the most decorated Paralympians in U.S. history.
"My family and friends can testify," Kirkland said. "I went through depression (after the accident) for four or five days after I got home from the hospital and rehab. I had a pity party for myself.
"Then I got over it."
Did he ever.
Kirkland won gold medals in wheelchair rugby at the 2000 and '08 Paralympics.
He competed in the 1998 World Wheelchair Games, winning gold and setting a world record in the 200 meters, silver in the 100 and bronze in the 400. He also was a member of two world championship rugby teams and five national titles with the Lakeshore Demolition Team.
The 40-year-old Kirkland goes into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday, joining fellow Class of 2012 members Artis Gilmore (basketball), E.J. Junior (football), Mal Moore (coaching), Charley Pell (coaching), Andre Tippett (football), Steve Wallace (football), and Dan Washburn (administrator).
Kirkland always considered himself an athlete, from his days as a pee wee to his year in community college and his budding career on the motocross circuit.
But one moment in Macon, Ga., changed everything.
How Kirkland responded speaks volumes.
"I was on my second lap, going across one of the master jumps, where you actually start downhill," he recalled.
When he left the jump, the back tire went into a rut, forcing him sideways into the air. He landed against a dirt embankment, his body whiplashing at the 35-mph collision.
The side of his head made contact first, the blow forcing his head into his shoulders.
"It exploded the fifth vertebrae in my neck," said Kirkland. "It bruised my spinal cord and caused my paralysis -- though I didn't know it at the time. I could look down my body. I could see my legs, and I couldn't move them. I thought I'd pinched a nerve in my back."
The prognosis at the hospital wasn't immediate.
"They didn't say, 'You'll never walk again.' It was just, 'Let's wait and see.' Days went by, then months," Kirkland said. "And, at some point, you've got to deal with it."
So he dealt with it, first in rehab, then eventually by going to the Lakeshore Foundation.
In between, he decided he needed to end things with his long-time girlfriend, Shai. They had been together since high school when she was a freshman and he was a junior. She had been to all of his basketball games and races.
And now, as he sat at home in an emotional funk, she was there again and he wanted her to find someone else.
"When I went through my pity party, I said, 'You need to move on and leave me alone.' She looked at me and said, 'I'm not going anywhere,' and she didn't.
"We've been married 15 years, together 21 years. She's a special woman."
Kirkland's athletic success after the accident was a byproduct of his prowess before. Watching television in the hospital, he saw an interview with Doug Kennedy, who was headed to the 1992 Paralympics Games. That set the wheels in motion for Kirkland.
But the real test came in everyday situations: Learning to regain his mobility, to deal with the routine of life, to depend on himself and no one else.
He took disability, started back to school and explored computer programming.
"The dealbreaker for me came one day," Kirkland said. "I went in at 8 o'clock and left at 6 (p.m.) after trying to get a computer program working. I was dying. I can't see myself doing that. I need physical activity."
He got off disability and found a full-time job that he held for five years. As his athletic success took off, he started working for Home Depot, which had a part-time employment program for Olympic and Paralympic athletes.
"They basically supported me, so that I only had to work 20 hours a week and was able to get off any time I needed to travel. No questions were asked," Kirkland said.
And when his athletic career ended, Home Depot hired him full time. He is a fixture at the store on U.S. 280, a hard worker with an engaging smile when customers walk in.
Saturday night, he joins the illustrious cast of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame "It's such an honor to be in there alongside the names already in there," Kirkland said. "I have to thank the Lakeshore Foundation for nominating me and the selection committee for recognizing me. I never thought I would be in something like this.
"This is something I will treat with respect and honor."