By Stephanie Rebman/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Sixteen-year-old Bryant Camp went on a late-night run for a Frosty and returned home without his legs.
Now 22, the Tupelo man is training for the Paralympics, is a public speaker and isn’t afraid to take his wheelchair out for a spin at the skate park.
It was teenage rebellion that landed the acclaimed athlete in a hospital bed, but an upbringing rooted in religion and a positive attitude brought him to where he is today.
On Dec. 15, 2006, Camp was sneaking out of his Spring Lake home for the 10th or 11th time. This time it was to bring a friend in Saltillo a snack, driving his parents’ Navigator.
“When I was 16, I had the bright idea to sneak out of the house,” he said. “Family issues caused me to completely rebel. When things decided to fall apart with my parents, I decided to do what I wanted.”
When he noticed it was 4:30 a.m. and realized his mom would be up for daily devotion at 5, he booked it down Highway 145.
Around Logan’s and IHOP the police clocked him going 95-100 miles per hour.
The blue lights turned on, and he kept on.
He hit the brakes and swung a left on Green Street by the Bingo hall.
The gas station attendant at the corner ducked for cover.
He floored it down Green Street getting ready to swing into a driveway, cut the ignition and wait until the cops drove by.
“It felt like millions of fire ants on my legs,” he said. “I looked down and the gasoline was burning my legs.”
He was trapped in the car and it was in flames. Emergency workers were doing all they could to get him out, but it wasn’t looking good.
“I remember just thinking, ‘Well, I’m done,’” he said. “I was thinking I’m either gonna die, or I’m gonna get out of this. Mentally I just wanted to sit down and die, but something got me out of there.”
He escaped through the sunroof, the firefighters patted him down, and he asked them to call his dad.
At the time, Camp was an all-district athlete at Tupelo Christian Preparatory School, playing football, baseball, basketball and making all A’s and B’s.
“Emotionally, I didn’t get upset, he said. “It made me a little depressed, but it was just something I had to deal with. It never affected my personality.”
Being in and out of the Firefighters Regional Burn Unit in Memphis and learning life after the amputation of both legs caused him to lose a year of schooling, but he eventually graduated from Saltillo High School.
He also won a perseverance award, which came with scholarship money.
And he lived for about three years in a wheelchair, with a second-floor bedroom.
Walking up those stairs on his hands for three years eventually earned him first place in three breakdancing competitions.
His recovery was stalled, though, when he was 18 and his father died of a heart attack.
“When my dad passed away, it killed me,” he said. “It put me at a stalemate for about two years.”
He went to Itawamba Community College and worked at a day care, but he left both of those because, he said, “I had no drive.” Most of his recovery and everything he did in his life was to make his dad proud.
Things snapped into place in 2012 when he went to Alabama and he was put to the challenge as an athlete again.
RACE TO FINISH
While Camp was spending time at a Bible-based school in Alabama during the summer of 2012, he committed to participating in an October bike-a-thon – a race from Bay Minette, Ala., to Gulf Shores, Ala. – about a 50-mile stretch.
“I did it in a wheelchair,” Camp said. “It was my first reason to train in five and a half, six years.”
He trained from sunup to sundown for three months and finished the race. It took about 12 hours, and he was pulled over by the cops, given money by people driving by and cheered on by many along the route.
“The week after, I was excited, pumped,” he said. “I thought, ‘that was fun.’”
He didn’t know it at the time, but his efforts were noticed by a certified Iron Man trainer. Soon after he got home, he got a call from Fred Survell, who told him about the Paralympics.
Then he got a call from Methodist Orthotics & Prosthetics in Jackson, offering to sponsor him for a pair of running legs made by the same companies who build for the U.S. Olympic team.
He kept working out and on Dec. 1 participated in the 26.2-mile St. Jude Marathon in his regular Walmart house wheelchair.
He went up against other guys in sports wheelchairs with sports gloves, goggles and all the proper equipment.
“I stayed with them the whole way,” he said. “At some point my wheelchair shut down when it was at the max speed. But I wouldn’t stop and was first one to finish in a wheelchair.”
Despite an epic wipeout on mile 25, he finished in five hours, 10 seconds.
Two months ago, he was fitted for his running legs.
Five weeks ago, he got them.
Now he’s excited to train until the June 1 Endeavour Games, where he will try out for wheelchair volleyball, basketball, track and swimming, prosthetic track and field – and if there’s such a thing as wheelchair rugby, he wants in.
He’s hopeful a sports wheelchair deal can come through, but if not, he’ll give it his all in a house chair.
While keeping fit, he’s also being sure to have options other than athletics.
“I’d like to travel and speak everywhere as a career,” he said. “I’ve always known I can’t do sports forever. If I can, I’d like to stick with being an athlete until 30, then I’ll pick up something when I hit 30.”
He’s spoken about his journey to schools, churches and civic clubs ranging from anywhere to several to a thousand people. He also spoke in Vancouver an international burn conference.
“I tell kids about what I’ve done and what that causes, and let them choose” their path, he said. For himself, he “just keeps trying to make the right decisions.”
“I just think that I wouldn’t have lived through everything I’ve lived through if something big wasn’t coming my way. That’s what gets me through every day.”