Health and FitnessBorn on December 8, 1955 in Smith Center, Kansas, Kevin Saunders was the third and final son of Donald and Freda Saunders. Kevin and his brothers loved sports of all kinds from a very early age.
In second grade Kevin remembers, apparently for the first time, the sight of “big kids” throwing the football around next to the school gym.
“They could throw it so far, or so it seemed at the time. That made an impression on me. I wanted to do that, to throw that football so far until it looked like it disappeared in the Kansas sky. I liked the pads and the uniforms. I liked the idea of belonging to a team. When I saw the big guys playing football, that’s what I wanted to do.” Kevin would finally get to play organized football as a seventh grader at Downs Junior High. Still whippet-thin and undersized, he was the team’s center.
“We got our butts kicked when we were seventh graders,” he said. “I remember guys pulverizing me, just great big guys. I was still just a little bitty guy when I was a seventh grader. All I remember about that team was these big monster guys hammering me into the ground, game after game. “But for some reason, I loved it!”
Kevin went through his growth spurt between seventh and eighth grade. He began both place-kicking and punting for the football team, as well as playing tight end. He also participated in basketball and track.
The ninth grade was Kevin’s first year in high school and he was a “little dog in the Big Kennel.” His school had the second-ranked football team in class 2-A, in the state his freshman year. The team had a lot of tough boys, but Kevin really enjoyed it, liked getting right in the middle and scrapping with the toughest of them. He even got to play some on varsity and the kickoff team. It was a good year for him, learning what it takes to be a champion. Even then, he realized that you’ve got to be tough, and you’ve got to be able to endure whatever it takes to be a champion.
Kevin also participated in basketball and track. In track, he was a member of the team won the freshman mile relay, and had a fifty-eight second quarter mile as a freshman, which was impressive for his age group. He started to put on weight in his freshman year (up to 160-170 pounds) and grew close to six feet tall.
One memory of Kevin’s sophomore year in particular stands out in Jack Myers’ memory. While Jack was on his way to a track scholarship, Kevin was just a little above average as an athlete, except in the discus. One April evening, the Downs track team traveled to a popular high school invitational track meet, held annually in Lincoln, Kansas.
“About ten minutes before the 440-yard dash — probably the hardest quarter of a mile in sport because you don’t know if it is a sprint or a long-distance run— they ask Kevin to run it for Downs,” Jack said. “Kevin doesn’t have track shoes, he doesn’t have spikes, all he has are soccer shoes, but he says, ‘Sure, why not?’ “When it starts, I’m sitting right in the middle of the field, and Kevin takes off like it is a 100-yard dash. He’s ahead of some pretty good runners. That’s the way he’s always been. If he runs it, he’s going to go for it. At the 220-yard mark, he’s still leading it, still running all out. At the 330 mark, he’s still leading it, still running full throttle. Then, it was like a big monkey jumped on his back. He just died. But he gave it everything he had.
“Of course, Kevin didn’t know how to run that race, but that wasn’t going to stop him. He hadn’t trained for it, he didn’t have the stamina. But he said he’d do it and he gave it all he had, which is what he’s always done. And I really admired him for that. He wasn’t that fast of a runner, but he always gave it all he had. Jack has a host of similar Kevin Saunders stories, mostly illustrating Kevin’s intrepid and determined spirit. By his senior year, he was moved to quarterback on the football team. The Saunders family scrapbook is filled with articles about Kevin’s senior year.
Kevin trained in the fall by running alongside his father’s tractor, heaving bales of alfalfa onto a moving trailer.
While Kevin’s best friend Jack Myers attended Oklahoma State on a football scholarship, Kevin was offered a soccer scholarship at Cloud County Community College in Concordia, Kansas.
“I thought, ‘Well, I’ll give it a try; see how I like it,’” Kevin said. “I’d tried soccer in high school and, to tell you the truth, I always been intrigued by it since I saw it played on TV by great players like Pele. I soon found out I missed the full-contact aspect of football, so I decided to go back for the football scholarships I had been offered. In soccer after the kicks, I was always knocking guys down. My nickname was ‘Mongo’ because these tough guys would run into me and they’d say it was like hitting a wall. The coach didn’t like it because I would just run over the other people. Sometimes the soccer ball would be there and sometimes it wouldn’t. I was used to football.”
After a less-than-memorable soccer career, Kevin was offered a football scholarship to Pratt Community College in Pratt, Kansas in 1975. This was more to his liking. Kevin’s most memorable moment came when he made a big play and ran for a touchdown to help his team upset what was then the number one ranked junior college team in the nation. The score was twenty-six to twenty-five. He also participated in track and field and did well enough to always make the finals and score points for his team.
From the early days of his youth to his college years, Kevin led an active lifestyle and participated in football, track, soccer, and rugby. The first thing Kevin did after he got a job as a Federal Inspector for the USDA in Corpus Christi, TX was to join the local Corpus Christi Rugby Club, the Athletic Club and the YMCA. When Kevin wasn’t working he was totally immersed in the sports he loved.
A Setback Is an Opportunity for a Come-back
That all changed on April 7, 1981, when the Corpus Christi grain elevator exploded, killing 10 coworkers and injuring over 30 others. Kevin wasn’t expected to survive, after experiencing the trauma of the explosion which propelled him 300 feet through the roof of his building and onto a concrete parking lot, which broke his spine. After months in the hospital, and even after beginning rehabilitation, Kevin was still just a shadow of his former self. He was now paralyzed from the chest down and would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. While his world was falling apart, there was not much he felt he could do to regain any of his good-natured optimism or to reclaim his identity as a healthy, active person.
Kevin recalls, “I had always been a very athletic person, and now I couldn’t even get out of bed by myself. I was stripped of my pride and personal dignity, paralyzed from the chest down and left alone to wallow in self-pity. Depression and self-doubt ate me alive, dominating my thoughts and reducing me to a shell of my former self. I realized that my life was over. It wasn’t only my arms and legs that had been rendered immobile, but my spirit had been lost in the blast as well. The reality of it ate at me with every ounce of sense in my body.”It wasn’t until his friends, Robert Hays and Bruce Acuna, literally dragged Kevin into the weight room that Kevin’s competitive and athletic spirit was re-ignited. He transformed his broken body through hard workouts and started to heal his inner self through the sense of support and positive energy his friends provided every time they worked out together. This was the turnaround in Kevin’s outlook on the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
Kevin says, “The accident that had happened to me after I had graduated from Kansas State University left me looking for ways to get back into the mainstream of life. I found the answer in wheelchair sports. During that time I was very skeptical of this. I started with wheelchair basketball and in my first year, I was chosen to be on the all-star team from Texas which was made up of teams from the bigger Texas cities. The next year of competition I was chosen as the outstanding player of the Lone Star Conference. However there was still something lacking in my life I felt there was more I needed to accomplish to fulfill my goals.”
The Road to Success is Paved with Failure
In addition to the help he received from his friends, an invitation from his brother to participate in his first wheelchair race was the second spark in his bright athletic career. “My life really changed when my older brother, Gerald, invited me to come and run The Peachtree 10K (10,000 meter or 6.2 mile) road race in Atlanta, GA,” says Kevin. “It’s a big event that draws more than 50,000 runners from around the world every 4th of July. My brother lived close by, and had seen wheelchair athletes on the course the year before. He thought I might like to give it a shot, so I went.”
He continues, “As I said athletics had always played an important part in my life but it was the Peach Tree Road race a 10 K that I never even got to finish because I showed up in an old hospital chair to race in. Then I saw that all the other wheelchair athletes were in light weight racing wheelchairs. Even after seeing this I still thought I could find a way to win because I still saw myself as that athlete who had been successful more than most on my feet. I failed miserably that day and never even got to finish the race.”
Kevin believes that this failure truly opened the door to opportunity because he got to be around and compete against some of the greatest racers in the world. He also set a goal that day: “I never wanted anything like that to happen again. I vowed right then and there, that no one would ever pull me off the racecourse ever again. I wasn’t going to give anyone else the chance to control my destiny. I adopted the attitude of what would I want to accomplish if I knew I could not fail? Then I had to prepare to reach those goals and find out what the greatest wheelchair athletes in the world were doing and work on improving upon that because I had already decided this was going to be part of my destiny,” he says.
Kevin’s attitude was expanding. “Because getting fit gave me my life back,” he explains, “I felt it was necessary for me to give back to my community, my state and country, by stressing the importance of fitness to allow you to maximize your results. It is a fact that the better shape you are in, the clearer you can think and the more strength you have to reach goals you or others may think you could never achieve! You can use that increased fitness level and mental clarity to reach whatever goals or dreams you may have!” Though Kevin had been handed a serious physical setback, he turned it into a success.
Kevin adds, “Since then, I’ve been very fortunate as a wheelchair athlete, winning Gold in World Championships, Paralympics medals in Seoul, Barcelona and Atlanta and earning the title of ‘the world’s greatest all around wheelchair athlete’ between 1986 and 1992.”
In 1990, he was honored with an appointment to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, an opportunity to work directly with President George H. W. Bush and other notable leaders in health and fitness, including then Chairman, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The goal of the group was to promote greater awareness on matters of nutrition, health and the benefits of physical activity for all Americans, especially the young. He would be the only member re-appointed under President Bill Clinton in 1996, and would be named a constituent expert by George W. Bush in 2000.
In October 1990, Kevin became the first person with a disability to be named to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports (PCPFS).
Kevin’s Crusade for Nutrition and Fitness
After serving under three President’s on the Council on Physical Fitness & Sports, Kevin realized that the health and obesity crisis in America still needed support. So, in order to raise awareness, he decided to do what he does best – push forward.
Wheeling his way through America’s heartland, one grueling mile after another, Kevin traveled from our northern border down to the Rio Grande in the Fitness 4 All 50 State Tour. Meeting with the media, local officials, and concerned residents at every stop, Kevin spent months educating families about healthy shopping choices, exercise advice, and motivational tips. Then, he continued his journey across Europe, serving as an Ambassador for Fitness.
He believes that a key to America’s strength is its health, and still works with communities and government groups to establish programs that encourage greater awareness of nutrition and exercise. His upcoming book, Revolutions, is devoted to this cause, which is near and personal to his heart.
When the new administration was elected, Kevin was honored to be the only person reappointed to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness & Sports by President Bill Clinton to serve again on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, where he remained for both terms of his presidency. Kevin says of Clinton, “I found him to be not only a bright, charismatic leader, but also a warm and friendly person. Moreover, he believed in our goals.”
Warning label message
Kevin adds, “I wanted every American to have more dedication to their families, themselves, their communities, and their country. Along with this, the President also impressed upon me what he expected from each member of The President’s Council on Physical Fitness & Sports, and what a tremendous responsibility it was. He offered this as an encouragement, as well as a challenge for us as Council members to find ways to improve education and programs about the benefits of education about staying fit and eating right and by doing this we could raise the level of fitness for all Americans. He communicated his faith in my ability to go above and beyond the call of duty to find a way to get the job done the right way. I’m proud to say that under his leadership, we continued to make progress on fitness as a public issue, working with the Surgeon General to help establish the warning label that states ‘The lack of physical activity may be hazardous to your health.'”
Kevin’s On-going Promotion of Health and Fitness
TV Spokesman for Health and Fitness
Kevin has been featured in over 50 broadcast television commercials promoting fitness, education, health and wellness.
Helping Young Athletes
In 1985 – Kevin donated the New Track for his High School Alma Mater Downs High School, Downs, Kansas and the Waconda Unified School District 272 (where only a dirt track existed before) Now Lakeside High School. In 1989 – 4 years later the DHS -Downs High School Track team went on to win their schools first State Track & Field Championship. In 1983 Kevin also donated computers and type writers to his High School Alma Matter to help them stay up with larger schools.
Recognizing Outstanding Student Athletes
The Kansas State football program “Kevin Saunders Never Give Up!” award has been given to many great student athletes from 1991 to 2014 many of which went on to have outstanding careers in the NFL.
Working for a Healthier World
Kevin was the first Paralympian and person with a disability appointed to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness & Sports by President George H. W. Bush—and was the only member reappointed to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness & Sports by President Clinton and as a constituent expert by President Bush & the PCPFS & Department of Health & Human Services for a special imitative to improve fitness for children & youth with disabilities. More recently, Kevin pushed his wheelchair over 2,500 miles across America promoting health and fitness, speaking to schools, students, teachers & administrators about the importance of education for proper nutrition and fitness activities. Kevin and his team were also holding Health& Fitness Summits with the city Mayors, leaders and state Governors, leaders & concerned citizens about getting involved in shaping up their communities and state. Later, he wheeled himself through portions of five countries in Europe serving as an International Ambassador for Health and Fitness encouraging active lifestyles.
Inspiring Success in Life
He is the author of several books including There’s Always a Way, Mission Possible, Conversations on Health & Fitness and most recently Blueprint for Success and CENTUAR the first Action Wheelchair Hero comic book. He is currently working on his latest book, Revolutions: Beating the Fitness Crisis in America, One Push at a Time.
As a Paralympian and member of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Kevin Saunders has received more than 100 commendations, proclamations and awards for his work to improve health and fitness and education in America and around the world. Kevin has raced in over 700 races around the world winning hundreds of gold medals. Kevin continues to compete and win races to the present day. He is also a motivational speaker and inspirational coach who, speaks with passion, about improving safety in the workplace and overcoming adversity. Kevin Saunders also is a school speaker who talks about the importance of staying in school and getting an education, because like Kevin says; “Without an education you’ll be operating with a real handicap.Health and Fitness Motivational Speaker.”
Health and Fitness Motivational Speaker
Kevin Saunders is a highly sought after motivational speaker for health and fitness. Kevin is also a business speaker, college speaker, corporate speaker, sports speaker who speaks about setting your goals high and overcoming adversity. How? By staying focused on improving every day, inspiring others, always remembering your long range goal. He stresses to the groups he speaks to how by doing the right thing, you will develop the courage, perseverance, dedication and determination to never give up in the pursuit of your personal, team or company goals that there’s always a way to achieve your goals and much more.
Raising Awareness on Health and Fitness
Kevin Saunders founded the “Fitness 4 All 50 State Tour” nonprofit corporation 501-c-3 dedicated to educate & empower our nation’s youth, parents, teachers, administrators and the American people about the importance of staying active and making healthy choices for balanced nutritional meals & healthy snacks so it becomes a habit for a lifetime. We will provide tools and resources from the best Fitness instructors & trainers for the best activities for each individual and the best nutritionists for the best nutritionally balanced meals & snacks for each given individual.
Let Kevin inspire and bring the champion out of every member of your audience.
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