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Meet One of the Nation’s Top Paratriathletes

Like all of us, this year didn’t go as planned for Mary Kate Callahan. A paratriathlete, she was training to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics when COVID-19 shut down the games. Instead of being discouraged, however, she’s grateful for the journey and is as committed as ever to her goals.

“I didn’t even think of myself as different, it was more of how can I make this work? And that’s the mindset I’ve really tried to apply the last 25 years.”

Video Transcript

Meet Mary Kate: paratriathlete

Chicago

Mary Kate Callahan: Some people think my life is totally wild, and it definitely comes across [that way]. But it’s just then — it makes me the Mary Kate that so many people know. I enjoy the controlled chaos that I like to call it.

(Loads chair into car, shuts trunk) All right, part one of the day’s done.

Mary Kate is one of the nation’s top paratriathletes. She was training to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics when COVID-19 shut down the games.

So we went to Florida, thinking dreams were going to become a reality, and we left Florida having to pivot all of our goals. But I think one of the biggest things for me about Tokyo, it’s been about the journey.

(Photos of Mary Kate competing in triathlons)

I made a promise to myself nine years ago that I was going to look back and have absolutely no regrets, knowing that I truly enjoyed every part of the journey. Whether I make the team or not, I think the last nine years have been something that have been so rewarding. I think it’s a journey that I’ll never be able to replicate again.

(Mary Kate trains in CrossFit gym)

At five and a half months old, I had a virus that went to my spinal cord called transverse myelitis. So it left me originally quadriplegic, gained a lot of the mobility back in my upper body, so now I’m a T9-T10 paraplegic. But at five and a half months old, you don’t really know what life is like. I thought everyone rolled around in a purple sparkly wheelchair, and my parents really raised me to be no different than my siblings.

(Mary Kate’s home video footage plays)

I got involved in sport as a young age and really just because I wanted to be like my friends. So I joined the swim team at age six, and by no means was I winning races. For me, it was just that sense of inclusion I felt through sport. I didn’t even think of myself as different, it was more of how can I make this work? And that’s the mindset I’ve really tried to apply the last 25 years.

Trainer, to Mary Kate: Good job today.

Mary Kate: I feel good still. All right.

I’ll never forget. I was swimming the 25-yard freestyle in a swim meet. I had my goggles partly on upside down, and I had my whole team behind me. And I think that was a moment not only was I competing as an athlete, but I was educating so many other people around me [on] what people with disabilities can do. I was once one of those kids who looked up to people in wheelchairs and wanted to do everything they were doing, and now to be able to kind of have the roles reversed is so special for me. And I want to try to help not only pave the way for them, but also be there to help mentor them along the way.

[Home video footage of Mary Kate at a swim meet, onlookers cheer]

Mary Kate: Okay. So these are our racing gloves. This is what I use on the run, so in my racing chair. They’re 3D printed to mold the position that I push on my rim — so my racing chair that I was in on the track, this is what I’m using. So it’s much more of a slam motion.

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