Staff Photo: John Bohn Kellen Bailey is a swim league head coach at Flowers Crossing. Bailey was a stand out high school swimmer at Brookwood and went on to swim at Florida State. Bailey was injured in a motorcycle accident last year and has recovered and returned to coaching.
It's the last week of the Gwinnett County Swim League's regular season and Kellen Bailey is on deck.
He'll be laughing with, and coaching, the kids from Flowers Crossing.
He won't be taking any of it for granted.
Bailey, a former star swimmer at Brookwood and a special education teacher in Gwinnett, is the picture of health. Tanned and muscular, with a swimmer's broad shoulders and tall frame. He smiles his all-American smile easily.
That smile, that health and even his presence on deck has been hard-won.
A year ago, it was all missing.
A year ago, Bailey was immobile in a hospital bed after a motorcycle accident on a winding Tennessee mountain road that broke his back.
Bailey tells the story in a quiet, matter-of-fact voice. He's not embellishing. There's no need. It's no less intense without gory details. Of which there certainly were.
"My specific injury was a burst fracture of my thoracic 6, my T6, vertebrae," said Bailey, leaned back in a chair next to the five-lane pool at Flowers Crossing. "Meaning, when my head hit the pavement, that impact was absorbed all in my T6 and it shattered it into dozens of pieces.
"They had to go in and rebuild that vertebrae and then support my back with titanium rods. I have eight, inch-and-a-half long screws anchoring those rods into my spine now."
Bailey, his eyes concealed by mirrored aviators, looks off toward the nearby tennis courts.
"The first 90 days were ... ," he paused, "pain like I really can't describe. You feel it everywhere. You can't move without your back twitching or moving.
"Everything, with the staples in my back and the screws, there was no escaping it."
Fortunately, a family friend from church had a hospital bed and Bailey was able to rest in an inclined position.
It was still more than six months before Bailey, a scholarship swimmer at Florida State, could lay flat on his back again. But the beginning was the worst.
"The first 90 days were hard," Bailey said. "I couldn't get in and out of bed on my own. I couldn't stand up or sit down without help. "
Showering, dressing, going to the bathroom all required assistance.
"I could barely brush my own teeth," he said. "I really messed up my left shoulder and collarbone. My whole left side. Collapsed left lung. Broken ribs on my left side.
"The first 90 days were bad."
But he had his family. His mom quit her job to take care of him. His dad, too, was there to help.
He also had his swim family. Even before he left the hospital in Knoxville, there was no doubt Bailey was well-loved by the kids, about 150 of them, he'd been coaching for four years at Flowers Crossing in Lawrenceville.
"It's just ...," Bailey said with another significant pause, "amazing how this swim team came together and showed so much support for me and my recovery and for my family. Within a day, my room was loaded with cards and flowers and hand-made posters. The nurses would come in and make comments like, 'Wow, you're a popular guy.'
"These are my kids."
The support continued when he got home a week later.
"The parents of the team got together and for two months straight, every single weekday night, there was a family that was bringing us a home-cooked meal for dinner," Bailey said. "It was amazing just how much they supported us and how they were there for me."
Bailey pushed himself so he could be there for the team again. It was on his mind the very night of the accident, while he sat in the hospital and thought about what had happened.
"Even shortly after the accident with all the chaos going through my mind, I remember thinking at that panic point of 'What are my responsibilities that are going to be affected by the back injury?'" Bailey said. "Work and coaching. It was on my mind immediately. How am I going to get back on deck and coach? What's going to happen with the team? Who's going to take over for me if I can't coach?
"I was really fortunate that I had three excellent assistants that had no idea they would ever be asked to have that much responsibility heaped on their shoulders. But they did. And they handled it so well. "
After two weeks, Bailey started getting the kids entered in the meets, but that was about all he could manage.
"I couldn't do anything," he said. "It's amazing how little you can do when you break your back. I'd never broken a bone prior to that accident. So I really went all out."
The last was said with grim humor.
"It was awful," Bailey said. "But it made things a lot easier knowing I had three great assistants that were making sure the practices were running well. And the support of the families here ... it was remarkable."I would say my relationship with this team was really strong last year. We were close. Some of these families are like family to me. The bond was made so much stronger last year."
It wasn't just the swim team Bailey didn't want to let down. He set a goal to be back for this summer season, but more immediately, there was his classroom of middle-schoolers to teach. Bailey was working with kids who have mild to moderate autism for the county.
But he was still recovering and there were concerns about his ability to do his job without injuring his back again.
"I didn't know if I was going to be able to teach for another year," Bailey said. "I made the decision in August, when I was told that I couldn't return to work, even though I was trying to, that if they didn't let me teach, I would do whatever I could to wait it out one year and live at home if I had to.
"But I was going to come back and coach at least one more year here (at Flowers Crossing) and make up for the half of the season I missed when I broke my back and show the parents I really appreciated their support."
That is this season.
"I have been looking forward to the start of this season ever since the night of June 11," Bailey said. "It was very special."
Bailey did get back to teaching -- rushing it he admits -- in November. By then, he had been displaced from his previous classroom, but the school system placed him with a different set of special-needs students at another middle school.
"I was impatient and with the economy and everything, I was really, truly afraid I was going to lose my job over MY mistake," Bailey said. "I had everything lined up so perfectly."
Until he took one turn too fast.
Bailey grew up in a family that all rode motorcycles. And he's a self-admitted thrill-seeker.
"It's exhilarating," Bailey said. "The feeling of freedom riding a motorcycle, not a lot of things can touch it. I think the only thing more exhilarating is skydiving, which I'll never be able to do again."
Skydiving is on a relatively short list of things Bailey's doctors have forbidden.
He has gotten back on his bike.
He rebuilt it while he was recovering, a cathartic experience for the 31-year-old, who taught himself to fix it rather than take it to a mechanic.
And earlier this month, a day before the one-year anniversary of the accident, Bailey went with that same group of friends and drove that same road.
"It really gave me a sense of closure," Bailey said. "I'm always cognizant of the injury, but the pain is nowhere near what I was used to. I've gotten to the point where if it never gets any better, I figured I could live with it. So I had that victory under my belt.
"I was able to rebuild my wrecked motorcycle within a year. We went up to that road and the specific turn where I went down and riding that road, albeit much, much, much slower than last year, gave me a really powerful sense of closure that I had sort of made up for my mistakes. I'm still doing that as far as coaching is concerned, but I'm healing and I'm really proud that I was able to get back on my bike, not be intimidated or afraid of it. I sort of faced that fear -- and beat it."
Bailey has had people tell him he's stupid for riding again. He gets it. He does.
"I won't argue with anyone if they think I'm a moron for getting back on a bike," he said. "But other people say it's kind of courageous and I appreciate that. I just didn't want to live with my last memory of being on a motorcycle to be traumatic.
"I just try to explain that it means something to me and I can't expect you to fully understand that. It's part of me. It's part of my family. It's part of who I am and I didn't want something to get the best of me. I came really close."
The perspective Bailey gained is something he tries to pass on to the kids he coaches and teaches. Not every day and not necessarily by bringing up his rather horrific accident.
"I think one of the real reasons why I'm drawn to coaching and the sport of swimming in general is that at an early age I learned a lot of these life lessons about hard work, perspective, overcoming obstacles and those situations will follow you all your life," Bailey said. "I do try to talk to the kids about hanging in there, pushing through hard times, being resilient and just knowing they have what it takes inside to overcome any of life's obstacles that come their way.
"It is my goal to talk to them about that, maybe help them with what they might be going through in their life, show them there is a light at the end of the tunnel -- with whatever it might be."
Bailey knows how important it is not to shy away from things that are difficult or hard.
"You start doing that in one area in your life and before you know it, you're avoiding anything difficult and you're never challenging yourself," Bailey said. "But these kids, we're pushing them every day. I know it's hard for them. I know they're tired. I've been there.
"What I want for them is to push through the muscle aches, push through the fatigue and really see what they're made of. That is what I want. I want all of them to understand their true potential. And reach it. Or at least come close to it. That is why I coach. That's what I love to see."