Mettle of Honor: the Courage and Will of Terry Lee, '66
Originally published in Carolinian magazine
Written by Chris Horn
A former pentathlon champion, Terry Lee knows the jubilation of having gold and silver medals draped over his head. He has also been honored with bronze—a larger-than-life statue in Atlanta commemorates his athletic prowess, courage and spirit.
But one of his proudest moments of athletic achievement wasn’t his own. It happened at the end of a scoreless basketball game in a tiny gymnasium in Atlanta where Lee, a paraplegic since age 13, was coaching a team of wheelchair-bound youngsters.
“We were in the third overtime, scoreless game, and one of my kids goes to the foul line for a free throw,” Lee said. “Everyone in the bleachers is wondering if this game will ever end, but I take him aside and say, ‘Just shoot it like you do in practice. Can you do that?’ He smiles and nods.
“Everyone in the gym is on the edge of their seats, watching him get ready to take the shot and probably thinking there’s no way—until he heaves the ball up, and it goes in! I don’t think there was a dry eye in the place.”
Lee nearly tears up retelling the story. But long before that moment of triumph with his young team, Lee had learned what it means to overcome. A hunting accident that severed his spinal cord during his freshman year of high school was devastating—but it couldn’t paralyze his independent spirit. With encouragement from his parents, he completed his studies at Brookland-Cayce High School and went on to become, in 1966, one of the first to graduate from Carolina in a wheelchair with the late Freddy Day.
“That was before curb cuts and wide doors and other wheelchair-friendly improvements,” Lee said. “Fortunately, my good friend George How offered to be my roommate on the ground floor of H Dorm (the Honeycombs).”
With a degree in business and finance, Lee, a lifelong Gamecock fan, moved to Atlanta to work for a large real estate firm. He started participating in paraplegic sports, and became a world-class wheelchair sprinter, swimmer and medal winner in the pentathlon event.
“I have fast-twitch muscles, and I could really go; I was never beaten in the 100-meter,” he said.
He won silver and gold in the National Wheelchair Games, and was a member of the USA Paralympic and Wheelchair Basketball teams. He later developed scoliosis—curvature of the spine—which required surgery and rehabilitation at Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta. In 1986, an anonymous donor commissioned the bronze statue of Lee that’s mounted near the center’s main entrance. The monument salutes his athletic achievement, business career and the spirit of independence and hope that Lee shared with many patients at the center.
None of it would have happened if, in those dark nights in the hospital immediately after his accident, Lee had decided that giving up was an option. It never was, and that was a lesson he instilled in others when he launched a youth wheelchair program in Atlanta with Carol Adams.
“I wanted to inspire young people who, for the first time, would have a coach who was in the same condition they were in,” he said.
Lee’s competitive days are long since past. Most of the sports medals are gone, too—Lee left them behind at children’s hospitals around the country where he encouraged kids not to give up. But that’s a trifling thing.
Lee’s perseverance is worth a thousand medals. And the mettle to share that spirit with others is worth a