Fennelly: Clearwater sailor Brad Kendell savors Paralympic shot

Brad Kendell almost died in a plane crash that cost him his legs. Now he's at the Paralympics.
Published September 11 2016
Updated September 12 2016


Clearwater's Brad Kendell was talking about U.S. swimmer and brat Ryan Lochte. It was just an opinion, from one water bug to another, one Olympian to another, one American to another.

"I just think you have to be grateful for what you have," Kendell said.

Kendell, 35, begins competition today at the Paralympics in sailing, Sonar class. Kendell is the tactician and handles the main sail on the 23-foot keelboat, teaming with skipper Rick Doerr and Hugh Freund. Doerr is paralyzed from the chest down. Freund is a single-leg amputee. Kendell lost both his legs 13 years ago in a plane crash.

A few weeks ago at the Clearwater Yacht Club, home base, Kendell sat in a wheelchair and spoke of the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He is between legs. He'll receive new prosthetics after the Paralympics. But first he'll sail.

"For my country, my family, my friends," Kendell said.

He'll sail for Piper, his 6-year-old daughter. He'll sail for everyone who helped him write his extraordinary story of survival and triumph. He could have died that first night. His mother, the indefatigable Patti, refused to let that happen. So did a lot of other people. So did Brad.

And he'll sail in Rio in the name of his father, Bruce, a big, brawny Kiwi who roared out of New Zealand and attacked each day as if the wind was at his back. Brad can still hear big Bruce's laugh.

"My dad would be very proud," Brad said. "He was larger than life. A jolly guy. He did everything. He sailed the world. He loved to have fun. … I think he's having a beer and a cigar up there, watching all this with a big smile on his face."

• • •

"I've got it, mate."

Those were the last words Brad heard from his dad. It was Aug. 21, 2003. Brad had been asleep in the back seat of the Kendell family's twin-engine Piper Navajo. Bruce was up front with Brad's friend Dan Griffith Jr. They had flown to the Jacksonville area on business — Bruce was a successful commercial builder — and were returning home to Clearwater. It was storming. That's all Brad truly remembers. Rescuers later told him that he was on fire when they found him.

The plane crashed in a residential neighborhood near Clearwater Air Park. Bruce and Dan died on impact. Brad, who graduated from USF, arrived at Tampa General Hospital with his legs shredded and his body badly burned.

That began an odyssey of pain and resiliency, with Brad's legs amputated above the knees, with 20 other surgeries, including an open-heart procedure to repair an aneurysm on his aorta. There were all the skins grafts (you can still see scars on Brad's arms and chest) and the infections, all the close calls.

"Wasn't supposed to be here," he said.

Bruce and Patti Kendell were married for 29 years. They met on a blind date. Patti was a Delta Air Lines flight attendant. Bruce, 6 feet 1 and 260 pounds, was a well-known sailor, a world-class talent. They sailed the oceans, a couple of hard chargers. They taught their sons, Brad and Sean, to love the sea. Brad was a keen competitor at sailing races even as a kid. Still is. Loved to fish. Still does.

"It's the freedom of being on the water," he said. "Just the beauty of it. And the challenges. You can be out there one day and look to the west and you've got calm water. Then you look east and oh, man, there's trouble, there's a storm."

Patti said, "The doctors, they said that first night that Brad wouldn't make it. I told them that wasn't happening. No way. I think sometimes Brad's doctors thought I was a little crazy."

Brad has a little crazy in him, too. He wouldn't quit. He came all the way back. He learned to walk on prosthetics. He danced at his wedding.

"I just never thought I wouldn't be here," he said. "As soon as I was able to sit up after being bedridden in the hospital for a month and a half, my mom took me outside (Tampa General) and we went right down by the water. One of those party boats went by, and it was playing Jimmy Buffett. I said 'All right, let's get back at it.' "

• • •

Even as Brad rehabilitated, his brother carried him to the dock to put him in a sailboat. Brad began competing again. He turned world class. After he and his teammates qualified for Rio, they won a world championship in April in the Netherlands. On the medal stand, Brad broke down while thinking about his dad.

There is a glaring reality that goes with these Paralympics for Brad and other sailors.

The clock is ticking.

"It's amazing to be going to Rio," he said. "But it's bittersweet because this might be the last time for sailing in the Paralympics. They've taken it out. From my understanding, there aren't enough countries competing. So right now, the way it is, we've got one shot. Puts a little pressure on us."

That's life. You get one shot.

Only sometimes you get two.

Like big Bruce before him, Brad Kendell is in commercial construction. He remains a regular at Clearwater Yacht Club, which held a fundraiser for his Olympic race team.

Since 2012, Brad has helped run the Never Say Never Pirate Camp at Clearwater Community Sailing Center, teaching disabled children, friend and family sailing skills and responsible boating practices.

"It's great to see kids smiling on the water, either leaving a wheelchair or a leg up on the dock, just getting out there."

Here is Brad Kendell's idea of freedom.

"A nice cool day, a cooler full of beer and a cooler full of fish. Or a nice 8- to 12-knot breeze, warm water, sunny. And winning."