World Champion Athlete
Kevin Saunders’ journey to becoming a World Champion was one that few could have imagined. As a teenager he played high school sports including football, basketball and track & field – skillfully enough to earn a college scholarship for football and track & field. In college he also joined a rugby club, relishing in the thrill of competition and athletic achievement. However, like most people, athletics took a back seat to work and family after college. Months after graduating, Kevin took on a new job as a federal inspector for the USDA in Corpus Christi, and within 2 years, he was married and ready to start a family.
The grain elevator explosion that Kevin survived in 1981 hurled him over a two-story building and onto a concrete parking lot over 300 feet away. No one thought he would live. The accident and its aftermath took not only the use of his legs, but also shook his faith in God, destroyed his self-image and sank him into an overwhelming depression that he struggled with daily for almost two years.
Immersed in constant physical and emotional pain, Kevin fought a battle he never felt he would survive.
Kevin says, “I might never have recovered if it hadn’t been for the help of my rugby friends, Robert Hays and Bruce Acuna.” Robert and Bruce had been rugby teammates, and they were constant visitors during Kevin’s convalescence. Somehow they understood that Kevin’s pain and frustration were building up and that Kevin needed a way to channel these energies in order to overcome his depression. Counting on what had worked in the past, they took him to the weight room. Having come from months of physical therapy he despised, Kevin found that every workout with his friends was actually transforming him. He says, “I started to remember what a big stress reliever exercise can be, and looked forward to longer, more vigorous workouts…I learned two things.
The first was that, over time, exercise and friendship would heal my body and soul in a way that money could not.
The second was how critical it is in life that you surround yourself with people who build you up, and that with God all things are possible. Without the jump start that my friends gave me, I don’t know what would have happened to me.”
Racing Against the Odds – The Peachtree 10K Road Race
It was only when he pushed his hospital-style wheelchair to the starting line that he realized that the other athletes in the wheelchair division were lining up in aerodynamic, racing wheelchairs. Kevin was taken aback, and woefully unprepared: he had no hand tape, no gloves…not even water. He had no idea what an event of this type was like, and he blissfully awaited the countdown. After the gun went off, the rest of the field accelerated, and Kevin started pushing his rickety chair on a course that would test his resolve – and turn his life around.
The distance, the hills, the chaos of cheering bystanders – all of this was new to Kevin. Without any hand protection, his hands were terribly blistered from the effort of pushing in the first few miles. However, he was exhilarated, and no amount of pain was going to stop him. A mile short of the finish line, however, Kevin was blocked by a race official and ejected from the race course, in total confusion. The first foot runner (the able-bodied race started after the wheelchair race) had passed Kevin, and it was unknown to Kevin that wheelchair athletes who are passed by runners must abandon the course as a matter of safety.
Though he had given his all, and loved the feeling of racing to the finish line, he felt stripped of the opportunity to meet his goal in this new, thrilling sport. He was immediately overcome by the familiar, painful dejection that had had known for so long. But this time, something was different and that self-pity quickly turned into resolve. He realized that no one – not doctors, not physical therapists, not even friends – could decide for Kevin who he would be or where he would go. It was up to him.
“I set a goal that day: I never wanted to let that happen to me again in my life. I’d never be pulled from a race like that again. No one would control my destiny ever again. I also realized, maybe for the first time, that while there were a million things I could do on my feet, there were still nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand things I could do in my chair! I decided to quit focusing on the thousand things I could not do.”
He returned to Texas and order a racing chair, learned how to train and how to what to eat, and started working out at a local track. He learned about outstanding wheelchair athletes, including David Wear and George Murray, and followed their example with the discipline and hunger of a true competitor.
When Kevin gives a speech he always shares with his audiences his first wheelchair race, the Peachtree 10K road race in 1983 that changed his life forever. Audiences of all ages respond to this story of what strength and determination really mean, and how they too can overcome tremendous obstacles and be inspired to overcome the “cardiac hills” and obstacles in their lives – and turn their goals and dreams into reality. People of all ages come up to Kevin after his speech and recount the Peachtree road race verbatim! This story is an incredible testament to our unfailing spirit and uncommon determination, and powerful encouragement to all. It’s a reminder to never stop fighting, until one can overcome the greatest odds to find the champion within!
Audience members tell Kevin how profoundly moved they were while listening to Kevin tell the story of his first wheelchair race, with such enthusiasm that they feel like they, too, were in the seat of his old, bulky, clumsy hospital chair. This is story of enduring constant agony with fortitude, courage, inner strength, and a Never Give Up attitude! Many have remarked on Kevin’s Peachtree Race experience as one of the most heroic and valiant efforts in sport – the spark that has allowed Kevin to reach incredible goals and to inspire others to reach their own limitless goals.
Through the “Hoops”
Kevin’s passion for training and sports was re-ignited, and he started to believe that there might be room in his life for more than the negativity that had seemed to overtake him for so long. On the anniversary of the accident, a television appearance by Kevin caught the attention of members of a Corpus Christi wheelchair basketball team. They invited Kevin to play and he quickly took to the sport, joining the team and quickly establishing himself as a key player on the team. In 1984 and 1985 he would be named to the Lone Star Conference All-Star team.
Becoming an Olympian
It wasn’t long before Kevin came across a photo of Randy Snow, accepting the silver medal for the 1,500m race, at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Just like the Peachtree race, this was a revelation. He had no idea there were wheelchair races at the Olympic Games, and the drive that was already pushing him to work hard suddenly expanded into something greater. Kevin wanted the opportunity to win an Olympic medal.
Because Snow was living in Austin, Texas, it wasn’t difficult for Kevin to arrange to meet him. The two found a kinship and started training together, though Snow says of Kevin, “He was real green at the time. He had a lot of energy, was real motivated, he just wasn’t very good at it yet. It takes a lot of time, you can’t just do it in a year or two – it takes a lot of years.” Emboldened by this new friendship and his own desire to succeed, Kevin made a sign proclaiming his new goal, and posted it in his bedroom. It read simply: “1988 Medalist, Seoul Korea.”
Setting a huge goal had a profound effect on Kevin. It motivated him to work harder than ever, to develop courage and focus on success in a way he had never understood before. Friends and family noticed the change in his attitude and disposition, and they welcomed it, even though they still had no clue of how far it would take him.
Within a year, Kevin was competing in track and field events, winning medals in events like the pentathlon, which combines the 1,500m distance with the shorter 200m, shot put, javelin and discus throws. He found success at local and national meets, but he knew that his times weren’t yet good enough to get him into the Olympics. He says, “It takes time to adjust to your new body, and to learn to make it work for you.” But it was also clear in his mind that even though his personal goals were huge, he wasn’t just training and racing for his own benefit. At the time, he explained to a reporter, “One of the reasons I’m furthering my athletic career is to prove to other handicapped persons that you don’t have to give up being active just because you’re disabled. I want to project a positive image to handicapped people.”
In 1986, Kevin struck gold. At the International Wheelchair Games in Adelaide, South Australia, he competed in the pentathlon and won the gold medal with a World Record 3,771 points.
In the months that followed, Kevin knew that he had to put everything into his training for track and field events. At this time, he met William Brady, a champion who set out to break all U.S. track and field records, and did so over the course of an illustrious career.
Brady says of Kevin, “One thing Kevin and I have in common is that burning desire to be #1. It’s not over that little piece of metal…That’s just a kind of symbol of what you’re really after – and that’s to be the best you can really be.”
Kevin’s desire to be his best carried him straight to the U.S. Paralympic Trials, where he won silver in the pentathlon, earning a trip to Seoul, and also qualified in the discus, shot put, javelin and 200m race.
“It was a great honor to go to Seoul and represent my country,” says Kevin. With several family members in tow, Kevin felt like he was living a dream as he arrived in Seoul. The key event for Kevin would be the pentathlon, an event that included two other Americans, Brady and Doug Kennedy. After Kevin and Doug’s poor start at the shot put and javelin, it looked like only Brady would be a medal contender. However, an excellent discus throw by Kevin turned a bronze medal finish into a mathematical possibility. It would come down to the 1,500m race. Kevin finished 53 seconds ahead of Brady, and when the point tally was completed, was awarded the bronze medal.
In 1989 Kevin won the World Track & Field Championships, held in Stoke Mandeville, England, where he was declared “The World’s Greatest All-Around Wheelchair Athlete.”
He would go on to compete at the highest level of the sport, whether in the pentathlon or individual events, setting multiple world records at the Paralympics (Kevin competed in the Barcelona Games in 1992 and the U.S. Paralympic Trials for the Atlanta Games in 1996), the World Track & Field Championships, and the Pan American Games, among other notable competitions. He would also earn victories at road races, including the half-marathon and marathon distances.
Finding The Champion Within
Throughout the intervening years, Kevin’s desire for excellence has allowed him to rise to the top of elite international athletic competition. Through the ups and downs of training and competition, he was never immune from periods of pain, frustration or fatigue. He acknowledges that “Pain builds courage! You can’t be strong, brave and a winner if only good things happen to you. You have to go through the tough times and obstacles to find out what you’re really capable of.”
It’s that winning attitude that summoned forth the champion inside him, and that prepared him for his appointment to the President’s Council on Sports and Physical Fitness and his eventual role as a motivational speaker. Every year, he speaks to audiences around the country – delivering presentations that remind participants about their power to make commitments, to be the best they can be, and to “Never Give Up” in the pursuit of their dreams.
Let Kevin inspire and bring the champion out of every member of your audience.