A tragic accident pivoted Talbot Kennedy from cheerleader to wheelchair rugby champion

“WHETHER YOU’RE IN A WHEELCHAIR OR FULLY ABLED, YOU HAVE TO DECIDE IF YOU’RE GOING TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF LIFE’S OPPORTUNITIES.”

“WHETHER YOU’RE IN A WHEELCHAIR OR FULLY ABLED, YOU HAVE TO DECIDE IF YOU’RE GOING TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF LIFE’S OPPORTUNITIES.”

STORY: Ann Hardie
PHOTOS: Sara Hanna

Talbot Kennedy doesn’t want you to feel sorry for him. Nor should you. The 33-year-old quadriplegic just completed his sixth Peachtree Road Race and plays on the USA Wheelchair Rugby team that competed in August at the Wheelchair Rugby World Championship in Sydney, Australia. Sure, there were times Kennedy felt sorry for himself after a flubbed flip off of a trampoline—on his last day of high school, no less—ended his plans to attend college on a cheerleading scholarship. But a broken spinal cord didn’t shatter his competitive core. Kennedy picked up wheelchair rugby during an intense therapy program at the Shepherd Center in Buckhead, where he rehabbed after breaking the C5 and C6 vertebrae in his neck. Shepherd’s also where he now works as a peer support liaison, sharing with newly injured patients everything from bed-to-chair transfer techniques to his own journey to independence. The job brings out the old cheerleader in him. “I help patients realize there’s life after a spinal cord injury,” he says. “It may be something different than what they thought, but it can be just as good.”

What’s the first thing you tell a new patient?

That conversation is about what they want to talk about. What everyone wants to hear is that they’ll fully recover and be running out of Shepherd, so I don’t jump in with, “Your life is going to be great now that you’re in a wheelchair.”

Are there patients who don’t want to talk to you?

Some people do say no, and that’s OK. I make myself available indirectly, rolling around Shepherd or playing rugby in the gym. Most people want to hear from someone who’s been through what they’re going through.

How long did it take you to accept a different life path?

Right after my injury, I couldn’t see beyond the day I was living in. It took about two years for me to really become independent and start thinking about moving forward.

What’s the biggest misconception about a person in a wheelchair?

That just being out in the world is some kind of accomplishment. I’ll agree a spinal cord injury isn’t the easiest thing. Whether you’re in a wheelchair or fully abled, you have to decide if you’re going to take advantage of life’s opportunities.

Cheerleading versus wheelchair rugby. Which is more badass?

Definitely wheelchair rugby. Cheerleading takes lots of strength and skill, but wheelchair rugby is full contact. With cheerleading, there isn’t too much smack talk.

Is wheelchair rugby as violent as it looks?

I wouldn’t say violent. The wheelchairs take most of the abuse. It’s not like hockey where fights break out. Then again, we’re strapped in our wheelchairs, so fights really can’t break out.

How did you end up with jersey number 13?

I picked it for a pretty corny reason. I like to say, “If you see 13 coming, it’s your unlucky day.”

Given what you’ve been through, do you consider yourself lucky or unlucky?

I would say fortunate. I don’t know where I’d be if it hadn’t been for my parents.

What’s your best quality?

My attitude. I’m a pretty good people person.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Maybe it’s because I’m an only child, but I want a big family.

What one person, living or dead, would you want to have dinner with?

Kevin VanDam. He’s a bass fisherman. I like fishing, and I’d love to hear some of his cool fishing stories.

What’s your favorite TV show?

I usually fall asleep to Family Guy or some other cartoon.

Favorite restaurant?

Pappadeaux. My favorite dish is the crawfish étouffée.

What’s your biggest pet peeve?

People who think they know what you’re going through. I had an older woman come up and say, “I can’t imagine being in your situation, but I broke my foot and had to spend two weeks in a wheelchair.”