Fifty years ago, while snow tubing in California, David Kiley slammed into a tree, injured his spinal cord and became paralyzed from the waist down.
Since then, Kiley concentrated on what he can do rather than what he can’t.
What Kiley could do was scheduled to be celebrated all weekend in Colorado, when he officially became a member of the 2022 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame class.
After his injury, Kiley turned himself into one of the best athletes in the world: Not just among disabled athletes, but among all athletes. The company he will keep in this Hall of Fame class is extraordinary. It also includes Olympic royalty like swimmer Michael Phelps, soccer player Mia Hamm, figure skater Michelle Kwan and skier Lindsey Vonn.
But Kiley, now 69 years old and a Mooresville resident since 1996, did some things even that starry group didn’t do. In an age of sports specialization across the globe, Kiley was a multi-sport athlete of the highest order.
Kiley’s signature sport was wheelchair basketball, where he was unofficially recognized as the best player in the world for a number of years. But he also won Paralympics medals in Alpine skiing. And for a while, in 1976, he was the fastest wheelchair athlete in the world in track and field.
“It was pretty challenging,” Kiley said, “running from a game to the track. I came away with five gold medals that year and I didn’t even know what I was doing.”
That was a long time ago, of course. Kiley is semi-retired now, wheeling around his grandchildren on his lap and taking them fishing in the pond that backs up to his property. But he still promotes and runs 3-on-3 wheelchair basketball tournaments, does volunteer work and pushes himself four miles to and from the nearby Publix grocery store several times a week to stay in shape.
A Southern Californian by birth, Kiley moved to Mooresville, N.C., with his wife Sandy and their two children in 1996. He was hired to run the adaptive sports program in Charlotte at a local hospital, having helped pioneer a similar program in California. His job was helping to introduce people — often people who had just suffered a devastating injury — to adaptive sports like cycling, skiing, basketball or tennis.
“My role was really to introduce the newly injured to an active lifestyle,” Kiley said. “It was a beautiful job.”
Kiley also competed in wheelchair basketball for much of that time. He was part of six U.S. Olympic Paralympic teams, spanning from 1976 to 2000, and was the only player to play wheelchair basketball at that level in four different decades.
By his own personal count, Kiley won nine gold medals. By the official count, it’s eight. The discrepancy stems from what Kiley calls the “hiccup” at the Paralympics in 1992, when a trace amount of a prescription painkiller called Darvocet was found in his system, disqualifying the entire U.S. wheelchair basketball team from a gold medal it thought it had won in Barcelona.
“That was hard, and it’s still hard,” Kiley said.
The single tablet of Darvocet was given to Kiley by a U.S. coach who thought he had looked up whether it was a banned substance but had scanned the wrong page, Kiley said.
“We fought for almost four years in the court of arbitration,” Kiley said. “There were examples in able-bodied sports where trace amounts were never prosecuted like that. But the U.S. had dominated (wheelchair basketball). I felt there was some politics involved.”
Other than that, Kiley has few regrets about his athletic career or his life. He once dreamed of playing for the L.A. Lakers and was the starting point guard for storied Mater Dei High in California, but that dream ended with his accident.
The story of his paralysis 50 years ago is one he’s told many times. Said Kiley: “Alcohol was involved. … I was a 19-year-old who didn’t know what he was doing.”
The tubing on a California ski slope was unsanctioned. Kiley’s own tube was banged into by two riders on another tube, he said, which spun him out of control and into a tree.
“It certainly has got a tragic sound to it,” Kiley said. “But look at where I’m at right now.”
Kiley and his wife, Sandy, have been married since 1978. They met at a wheelchair basketball tournament in 1978 in Ohio. She had a brother who was playing in the tournament, and so she got roped into running the clock. “His team lost in the finals,” Sandy Kiley said, “but he always likes to say he got the girl.”
At 69, Kiley doesn’t shoot hoops anymore due to three shoulder surgeries. Wheelchair basketball is a surprisingly physical sport, one in which arm-to-arm combat is frequent as players fight for the ball.
“It’s a very beautiful game, but it’s a rough game,” Kiley said. “A little like NASCAR. There’s a lot of bumping and banging.”
It’s a game Kiley loves, one where his wheel prints have long made a mark. He has served as both the commissioner and the president of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. It was the sport that brought him back out into the world after his injury. And now it’s the sport that, more than any other, led him into this hall of fame that honors both Olympians and Paralympians in the same class.
“When you cross over from being an athlete with a disability to the recognition and the distinction of the Olympic side of things — this, to me, is the hall of halls,” Kiley said. “I mean these are some of the best athletes in the world. And that’s the class I’m associated with? I’m just dumbfounded.”