Young athlete becomes champion by overcoming physical obstacles

When Brandon L. Harris was 3 years old, he used to run foot races with his older brothers up a hillside near their home. And he beat them every time.

"We anticipated he would be our athlete," his mother, Kathy, recalled.Today, Brandon is a nationally renowned athlete. But he competes in a way his parents never expected. Now 17, he is a wheelchair athlete who won 10 gold medals and set seven new national records in the 1993 Junior National Wheelchair Games July 5-11 in Columbus, Ohio. Competing in the 16-to-18-year-old classification, Brandon won five gold medals in track and field events and a gold medal in an obstacle course competition. He also competed in four swimming events, breaking three national records by half a minute each.

This was Brandon's fourth straight year at the junior nationals. Since he began competing in 1989, he has won enough medals, plaques and trophies to cover every wall in his bedroom.

The young man's goal is to add Olympic medals to his achievements, and he came closer to that goal when he competed in the Paralympics last year in Barcelona, Spain, placing ninth in the 400-meter race.

According to his mother, however, Brandon is much more than a successful athlete - "he shines as an individual."

Ever since Brandon, a member of the Pleasant View 7th Ward, Pleasant View Utah Stake, was paralyzed from the waist down in an accident on April 3, 1979, he has touched the hearts of many. His parents explained that his motivation and character have made him a role model for many younger athletes - both spiritually and athletically.

Brandon was once asked why he is so dedicated. He answered, "I looked around and saw my friends in football or track, and I couldn't do those things. But now I found something I can do. And I'm doing it."

He is quick to credit his parents for his success. "I owe them a lot," he said, his voice breaking with emotion. "I don't know how I'd have made it without them."

Brandon doesn't remember the tragic events in 1979 that altered his life permanently, but they are vivid to Sister Harris. She was walking home from a Tuesday morning Relief Society meeting with Brandon, then 3, and his brothers, Matthew and Chad, who were then 2 and 5 years old, respectively. The boys' 5-year-old cousin was also with them.

They were about a block from home when a pickup coming from the opposite direction accidently swerved toward them. "I grabbed Matt, but I saw the other three run down."

Brandon and Chad were unconscious for three days. Chad and his cousin recovered from their injuries, but Brandon's back was broken and his spinal cord severed.

After that, Sister Harris said, "I went to Church for two years never feeling the Spirit. I really felt abandoned," she tearfully recalled. "Then a lady in Relief Society was giving a lesson. She said it didn't matter how much faith we have if what we want is not yet in the Lord's time frame.

"All of a sudden, the Spirit filled me. I started crying. There was my answer. Now I look at Brandon, at the things he's accomplishing and the example he is. Children and youth who are competing in junior nationals look up to him. He is a role model for them."

Brandon began competing in athletics when a local wheelchair athlete, Vance Anderson, introduced him to wheelchair racing, and Brandon's parents bought him a used four-wheeled racing chair. Two weeks later, the 12-year-old raced in and won a 15-kilometer race at nearby Hill Air Force Base.

Soon after, Brandon raced a second time, and it was during this race his father, Jim, knew racing wasn't a passing fancy for his son. Brother Harris recalled there was a sharp turn on the course. "Brandon came flying down a hill, went around that curve on two wheels, flew off the road and into the top of a lilac bush.

"I went running to him," he related. "He was spitting leaves. I asked, Are you all right?' All he could say was,Get me back on the road!' "

Brandon now uses a specially designed three-wheeled racing chair and has competed in several long-distance races, including marathons, and in many track and field competitions. For the last three years, however, Brandon has focused on the track and field season, which runs from March through September. His best events are sprints.

Brandon tried out in track and field for the U.S. Paralympic team in July 1992 in Salt Lake City. He qualified and became one of the youngest participants in Paralympic history. At 16, he was competing mainly against 25-year-olds.

But in Barcelona in September 1992, Brandon had to face one of his greatest challenges - bitter disappointment. Four classifications in the games are held according to a person's disability. Brandon was in the second-to-highest classification going into the competition, but he was bumped up to the highest.

"The officials said I had more muscle control than the classification I was in," he recalled. Because of this change, Brandon was unable to race in the 100-meter and 200-meter events - his best. He was forced to enter the 400-meter. He also competed in the 4X100-meter relay.

"I was pretty down," Brandon said, after he was bumped. "I thought all the hard work was shot down the tubes."

But the next morning, he was back on the track preparing for his events. Sister Harris related, "His coach said the other adult athletes were impressed that he accepted what was dealt him and went on from there."

Brandon's coach wants him back for the 1996 Paralympics. But the young athlete said he'll wait for the year 2000. "I've already set my mind to go on a mission. I also want to get married in the temple and go to college."

The young man's goal-oriented lifestyle has paid off in more ways than just athletically. This year, he was named Utah's Silver Award recipient in the Discover Card Tribute for achievement in service, leadership, academics and for overcoming personal obstacles. He won a $1,250 scholarship. Today, Brandon is a senior at Weber High School in Pleasant View and is student body vice president.

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