Comeback Athlete of the Year


November Comeback Athlete Will Kimsey

School: Social Circle High School
Grade: 9th   
Sport: Swimming
Team: Westchester Lakes Wahoos/Social Circle High
Injury/disorder: Herniated disc with nerve compression
Quote: “I just like being in the water, being a part of the team and improving my times.”

  • Will had brain surgery at age 8 because of a bleed in his right temporal lobe. He returned to swimming after that injury, too.
  • He has also played baseball, soccer and tennis. He can’t play high-impact sports because of his brain surgery.
  • Will’s favorite stroke is the breaststroke. His favorite event is the 50-meter breaststroke.
  • His least favorite is butterfly because it hurts his back.
  • Will has a younger sister named Kaylee

Will Kimsey was born to be in the water. From his "Mommy and Me" swimming classes at age 1 to competing in state swim meets, Will has always felt at home in the pool.

"I just love being in the water," he said. "That is what I live for."

Because of his passion for swimming, the most painful part of a recent back injury for Will wasn’t the injury itself, the surgery or the physical therapy.

It was being forced out of the pool. 

Falling Down

By the time he was 12 years old, Will had already become a formidable swimmer. He was competing at a state level and was consistently setting new personal records to break.

Unfortunately, his swimming career was put on hold in sixth grade when he fell 4 feet off a loading deck onto his back.

"I barely remember it," he said. "All I know is I landed on my back and had an extreme pain in my back and shooting down my legs. It was like being stabbed in the back and legs."

Will could barely walk. His parents, Tammy and David, brought him to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for an MRI. The scan revealed that he had a herniated vertebra that was causing nerve compression.

"When it first started, the pain was just so severe," David said. "It was devastating to watch this child who had been so active lying in a chair in constant pain."

Treatment and Recovery

The Kimsey family was desperate to alleviate the pain Will was feeling. He had also developed a limp, which Barun Brahma, M.D., a pediatric neurosurgeon at Children’s, worried would make his spine injury even worse.

Dr. Brahma recommended a microdiscectomy, a minimally invasive procedure that removes a portion of the herniated vertebra to relieve the nerve compression.

"That did scare me," Will said, "but if it helped, I was all for it."

About a month after the procedure, Will started physical therapy at Children’s at Snellville, focusing on strengthening his core muscles to help support his back.

"The physical therapy was pretty painful, but he pushed through it," Tammy said. "He didn’t fight us on it. He has always been very mature for his age."

To help manage his pain, Will worked with Cindy Schoell, Psy.D., a psychologist at Children’s who specializes in helping kids cope with chronic pain.

Getting Up

For nearly two years, Will had to watch his friends swim and improve while he worked on strengthening his back.

"I know it ripped his heart out not being a part of the team," Tammy said.

As his pain decreased, Will thought more and more about swimming again. But he had to be cautious. In the fall of 2013, when it was time to join his school’s team, he decided he was ready to swim.

"The first few weeks, it was pretty painful," he said. "But eventually my core strengthened up and I got used to it."

The more he got used to it, the better he started swimming. By the end of the summer season in 2014, Will returned to the state level, finishing seventh in two events with his relay team.

"It is just amazing to see how he has brought himself back," his proud dad said.

1 related videos

2014 November Comeback Athlete: Will KimseyView

A 4-foot fall onto his back kept 14-year-old Will Kimsey from his favorite sport, swimming, for nearly two years. After surgery and months of physical therapy, Will is back in the pool, winning races and competing at the state level.


October Comeback Athlete Tarik Jalil

School: Flowery Branch High
Grade: 11th   
Sport: Football
Team: Flowery Branch Falcons
Position: Cornerback
Number: 20
Injury/disorder: Torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL)
Quote: “I think if I hadn’t gotten injured, I wouldn’t be as humble as I am right now. I know that any play could be your last, so I just have to play with that mindset. You have to go all out for that play.”

  • Tarik started playing football at 8 years old.
  • Because he was so small when he started playing, Tarik’s mom had to teach him how to tackle by “hitting them low.”
  • After his house burned down, Tarik only missed one football practice.
  • Tarik has aspirations to play in the NFL. If that doesn’t work out, he wants to be a physical therapist.

Tarik Jalil speaks softly, but his smile and attitude carry more than enough volume.

In the last few years, the junior at Flowery Branch High has been through his, and a few other young athletes’, share of obstacles. He was given plenty of opportunities to break down, pout and give up.

Instead, he steadied his focus, displayed a positive outlook and made it back to where he wanted to be—the football field.

Obstacle One

In the first game of his freshman season at Mill Creek High, Tarik was running down the field and planted his left leg to turn. He felt a pop in his knee and hit the ground.

The team’s trainer said he thought it was a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his knee. An MRI a few days later confirmed it.

The injury would require surgery and extensive physical therapy. His freshman season was over.

“I didn’t really know what that was,” he said. “I never thought I’d have a big injury like that. When they told me how long it would take to heal, it really upset me.”

But he didn’t linger on that feeling for long. He knew he had important work in front of him.

Tarik’s mom, Habibah, brought him to Egleston hospital for his surgery. Soon after, Tarik started physical therapy at Children’s at Suwanee.

“It was hard at first, having to go there instead of practice,” Tarik said. “Once everything started coming back and my knee started to feel better, I just rolled with it.”

Obstacle Two

After nearly a year, Tarik was ready to get back to the field. Unfortunately, his first comeback would be short lived.

During the first day of a football camp before his sophomore season, he felt another pop in his left knee. As soon as he had difficulty bending his knee, he knew he had torn his ACL again.

His sophomore season was over before it started. Habibah could not believe her son’s misfortune.

“It was surreal,” she said. “But he was telling me that it was going to be OK. He was just ready to start the process again.”

So start it he did. He went through another surgery. He went through another round of physical therapy, this time at Children’s at Hamilton Mill.

“I don’t believe he ever complained about having bad luck over the past two years,” said Allison Smith, P.T., D.P.T., M.T.C., A.T.C. “He approached every new challenge with diligence and commitment.”

Obstacle Three

In August 2014, Habibah was with her sons at the dentist’s office when she received a call from work. The family’s house was on fire.

When they arrived at the house, it was still burning. The loss was complete. The family was only able to save a few pieces of clothing.

“It was devastating,” Habibah said. “I just didn’t think it could happen to us.”

Despite another setback, Tarik held on to his positive attitude. He became the steady foundation that his family needed most.

“He always told me it was going to be OK,” Habibah said. “He just knew it was. Through the whole thing, he was so positive and optimistic.”

Tarik’s team and the Flowery Branch community rallied around the family, finding them a house and furniture inside of a month. The cornerback with the big smile was not going to have to miss any playing time.

Moving Forward

Tarik says the football field is where he goes to forget about everything else. It is his sanctuary.

But when life threw punch after punch toward him, on and off the field, he was able to push his heels down and keep moving forward by maintaining a single belief.

“I knew I had somewhere to go,” he said. “I knew where I wanted to go in life.” 

1 related videos

2014 October Comeback Athlete: Tarik JalilView

Through two torn ACLs and his house burning down, Tarik Jalil always maintained a smile and a positive attitude. By doing so, he was able to return to his football team for his junior season at Flowery Branch High.


September Comeback Athlete Savannah Bryant

School: Cheatham Hill Elementary
Grade: 3rd
Sport: Equestrian
Team: Copper Hill Sporthorses
Injury/disorder: Broken clavicle
Quote: “(Riding a horse) makes me feel like I’m flying.”

  • Savannah’s favorite horses to ride are Kate and Muffin.
  • Her interest in riding horses first started when she would ride ponies at the North Georgia Fair.
  • She has two brothers who are 6 and 8 years older than her respectively.
  • After her injury, she placed first and sixth at the Rolling Hill Saddle Club Show in two events. She placed fourth out of 18 in her first jumping competition soon after.

The feeling 8-year-old Savannah Bryant gets when riding one of her horses is unlike anything else she can experience on the ground.

“It makes me feel like I’m flying,” she said.

Because she had gotten so used to that feeling, Savannah found it very difficult when an injury left her grounded.

From Hobby to Passion

Savannah’s interest in riding horses started at the North Georgia Fair, where she would always ride the ponies. Before she was 4 years old, she was begging her parents to let her ride a full-grown horse.

Her mother, Tiffany, was hesitant. But she figured either the horse trainer would say Savannah was too small or her daughter would be too scared.

Neither scenario played out as her daughter was shown how to properly brush a horse.

“Savannah looked up at that horse, picked up each brush and began to do what the trainer told her to do,” Tiffany said. “From that point forward, we’ve been doing it.”

Over the Top

Because Tiffany wears the badge of “protective mother” proudly, she is at the barn watching her only daughter ride as often as possible. Thus it was no fluke that she was there in February 2014 when Savannah had her scariest moment riding.

As she and another rider turned a tight corner, something spooked Savannah’s horse, causing her to buck. Savannah managed to stay on after the first buck, but the second sent her over the horse’s head and onto the sandy ground.

“We were concerned about a concussion at this point,” Tiffany said. “We didn’t think about anything else.”

After taking a minute and dusting herself off, Savannah got back on her horse and finished out the last 20 minutes of her session.

A Little Lopsided

“I can’t lift my arm,” Savannah said, struggling to take off her jacket at home.

Once Tiffany helped her daughter take off her riding clothes, she noticed that her left shoulder was hanging a little lower than her right. Savannah refused ice or Advil, thinking the injury wasn’t that serious.

“My wife said Savannah was looking a little lopsided,” Savannah’s father, Todd, said.

It was then that Tiffany suspected her daughter had broken a bone. She called ahead to Children’s at Town Center and rushed her daughter over to the Urgent Care Center.

“I know they are going to see her right away, they have small equipment and they will be able to handle her,” Tiffany said of Children’s. “I have to be somewhere where they can take care of her and it will be OK.”

An X-ray quickly revealed that Savannah had broken her left clavicle, or collarbone. Lesley Wilkerson, M.D., was able manage Savannah’s pain, diagnose the fracture and treat it on site. She also showed the family how to wrap Savannah’s injured arm.

Savannah, with her arm in a sling, and her parents were on their way home in about an hour.

Jumping Off

Savannah’s pediatrician said the 8-year-old had to stay off of a horse for about six weeks.

“Her face dropped,” Tiffany said. “To her, the injury wasn’t that bad. Those six weeks were hard.”

Savannah constantly peppered her parents with questions about when she could ride again. Although being patient was difficult, she did what she needed to get healthy and ride.

“She has always been really strong,” Todd said. “She is the type of person who, when presented with the opportunity, always overcomes.”

When she returned to the barn, her trainer said it was time for Savannah to start attempting jumps, much to her mother’s dismay.

1 related videos

2014 September Comeback Athlete: Savannah BryantView

Savannah Bryant loves competing in equestrian events. But a fall from her horse broke the 8-year-old's collarbone and kept her out of the saddle for six weeks. See how her toughness and patience helped her get back on the horse, literally.


Comeback Athlete of the Year

Each Story Ends the Same. Back on the Field.

Do you know a young athlete* who overcame an injury or illness to get back to the sport they love? Do you want to reward them for all the hard work they put in to their recovery? Nominate them for Comeback Athlete of the Month.

Read the contest rules

*Eligible athletes must have received treatment at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta [in any inpatient or outpatient area] before returning to their organized sport.