Click here for entire article
Like any other middle schooler, Mary Kate Callahan just wanted to fit in, to not appear different. That was tough, being the only kid at her suburban Chicago school in a wheelchair.
Competing on the swim team provided a social group and gave her something to talk about in homeroom instead of having to explain—again—how a disease she could barely pronounce (transverse myelitis) had rendered her legs useless as an infant. She had spent plenty of time in the pool doing physical therapy, and had started swimming competitively at age six.
Effusive and enthusiastic, Callahan wasn’t someone who liked sitting still. She was also competitive, so it seemed natural to her that she would be a swimmer even if she couldn’t use her legs. “I loved the water,” she says.
Then one of her swim coaches, Keri Serota, a triathlete, invited Callahan to a summer triathlon camp in 2011 when she was 15. The camp concluded with a mini-triathlon. “The moment I crossed the finish line, I was hooked,” she says.
Today, the 20-year-old Callahan is one of the world’s best athletes in her field. Last May, she won the London triathlon, part of the ITU (International Triathlon Union) World Triathlon Series, and attained her elite status on the international circuit. This past January, she won the Arizona Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon in Phoenix. She is ranked No. 3 worldwide in her paratriathlon division going into this weekend’s ITU World Triathlon in Yokohama, Japan, and now is gunning for the 2020 Paralympics.
Callahan originally had her sights on competing in the Rio Paralympics in September (which will follow the Rio Olympics in August), when triathlon will be included as a medal event for the first time. But in 2014, she was disappointed to learn that only three of the five different classifications for disabled athletes would be included for triathlon and hers—PT1, the most severe disablement, for athletes who do not have any use of their legs—was not one of them.
She rebounded with the resolve to complete her first Ironman, the grueling mother of all triathlons: a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a full marathon. Last July, she took first place in the PT1 division in a half-Ironman in Muncie, Indiana; in October, she again won her division in Louisville, Kentucky, at her first full Ironman.
Callahan finishing her first full Ironman. Courtesy Mary Kate Callahan
That sort of success culled from the seeds of disappointment befits Callahan’s personal motto, “Never never never give up.” Her parents, Jack and Joanne Callahan, drilled that belief into her when she was growing up, repeating it often to her and pasting it on signs all over the house. She uses it in her email signature, brandishes it on her website, and embodies it. She hung onto it during the tough days of a lawsuit she filed in high school so she could compete with her teammates. And she repeats it to herself now when she’s enduring a tough training session or simply having a bad day. “If you believe in something so much, and keep pushing for it, you’ll get there,” she says.
Callahan has had to push for years. As a high schooler, she excelled at swimming, placing third in her division at the USA Paratriathlon National Championships in Austin, Texas, and getting invited to represent the United States at competitions in New Zealand and the Czech Republic. Yet back at home in Oak Park, Illinois, she was not allowed to compete with her high school swim team in the state tournament because the Illinois High School Association (IHSA), like 31 other states, did not have competition standards for athletes with disabilities. It was as if those athletes didn’t exist. That didn’t seem right to Callahan.
So, with the backing of the Chicago-based disability advocate group Equip for Equality, 16-year-old Callahan sued the IHSA, getting pulled out of classes to give depositions. She did not think the lawsuit would be decided before her graduation, but she wanted to make sure those who followed her, at least, would be given the opportunity to compete in sections and state for their schools. The suit settled shortly before the swim season started her senior year; by then, Callahan had been named captain of the school swim team. The settlement allowed Callahan and six other girls able to compete in the state tournament. Callahan won the 100-meter breast and finished second in both the 100- and 200-meter freestyle.
For Callahan, an important part of the settlement, which covered disabled athletes in swimming as well as track and field, was the inclusion of qualifying standards. That validated those who made it to the state tournament as competitors, not simply disabled students granted entry out of sympathy. “We wanted competitive standards because we are athletes,” she says.
Callahan went on to the University of Arizona, where she is now a junior psychology major and a sociology minor. She quickly joined the school’s TriCat triathlon club and, after the NCAA approved triathlon as an Emerging Sport in 2014, she advocated along with USA Triathlon for the inclusion of para-athletes. This time, the governing body was supportive and no lawsuit was necessary. Callahan was the only woman competing last year (a blind student from University of California, Berkeley also competed in the men’s division), but it was the chance to be included that was more important to her than the size of her field. “Racing with your classmates adds to the college experience,” she says. “Being out there with my team was super-exciting.”
Callahan with family—and a medal. Photo by Brian Berman
Callahan currently logs 15 to 18 hours a week training, divided between the pool, wheelchair “runs,” the hand-crank bike, and the weight room. On top of that, there’s time spent stretching, wheeling around campus, and lifting her bike and chair in and out of her car. Her workload focuses almost entirely on her arms and shoulders. “When I’m ready to go to bed at the end of the day, they’re ready to go to bed, too,” she says with a laugh.
Despite all of the hours devoted to training and all of the laurels she has to show for it, sometimes others still look at Callahan and only see a young woman in a wheelchair and not a world-class athlete. When she tells people who don’t know her well that she’s going to Yokohama the week after finals to compete in the ITU World Triathlon, they’re like, What?“It can be hard for them to wrap their head around the concept of me going to Japan to compete in an international event,” she says.
Callahan has accomplished more athletically than most able-bodied folks, but don’t tell her she’s an inspiration. She gets that all the time. “That’s great,” she says, “but we want to be considered athletes before we’re considered inspiring. I’m just doing this to live my life; I’m not trying to be inspiring.”
The media has contributed to that, reporting the overcoming-a-disability angle instead of emphasizing the athleticism of para-athletes. Yet with organizations like USA Triathlon promoting Paralympic participation in events since 2010, the number of participants has increased, the times have become more competitive, and awareness of the athletes as athletes is growing. In London last May, Callahan observed a definite shift with the coverage of the World Triathlon Series focusing on the competition and USA Triathlon staging press conferences for the para-athletes. “We’re getting more respect as athletes for our accomplishments,” she says. “Sure, our disabilities are part of who we are—I may not be competing on an international level if I weren’t in a wheelchair—but foremost I’m an athlete.”
At the same time, Callahan does want her athletic accomplishments to show others what’s possible. She embraces her place as a role model and speaks to groups of younger disabled students. “My hope it that someone will tell a friend in a wheelchair, ‘Hey, I just saw this person in a wheelchair doing triathlons,’ or the parent of a child with a disability will realize what’s possible for their child,” she says.
Callahan hopes to make another podium appearance in Yokohama this month. Courtesy Mary Kate Callahan
When she isn’t competing on the international stage, Callahan is like any college student. She trains with her TriCat teammates, she’s a member of the Alpha Kai Omega sorority, and she goes out on weekends. After graduation she wants to go to law school. She had watched her father, a judge, at work in the courtroom, but the lawsuit that granted disabled students the right to compete in the Illinois state swim meet solidified her career ambitions. “After seeing what went on behind the scenes, I decided I wanted to do that,” she says.
At the moment, though, she’s focused on Yokohama and after that the World Championships in the Netherlands in July, where she hopes to secure a spot on the U.S. national team with a strong showing.
Callahan has come a long way fast in the five years since that first triathlon. And the future seems wide open. For now, she’s reveling in the community she has found in sports that she craved in middle school. “I’m grateful to have met so many people from all over the United States and around the world. I have so much fun doing this,” she says. “In the para world, we have different disabilities, but we have in common a love of sports and competition.”
As race season officially started up again last weekend for one of my favorite “sparkplugs” Para-triathlete Mary Kate Callahan, I wanted to circle back with her since our last conversation and see how she was preparing to take on the season and prepare for Rio 2016! (sidenote, she was just mentioned yesterday in the Team USA article “para-triathletes to watch in 2015).
I asked Mary Kate to elaborate on some of her essentials/must have treasures for happiness. About the importance of surrounding oneself with likeminded, positive people and for fun… what this girly-girl at heart has in her training travel and workout bag!
MK: I always become more aware of my surroundings and especially all of the people in my life that have helped me get to where I am today. I think surrounding myself with so many GREAT people is a huge reason I am where I am today. These are the people that keep me calm, quiet, excited, focused and loving life on a day to day basis. Since I’m also in school while training, these are the people that help me keep a balanced lifestyle. I think if you get caught up in one part of life… you’ll miss out on so many other aspects of life.
I like to use other people’s energy to help fuel myself, whether it’s in training or racing it’s pretty amazing what can happen when you surround yourself with positive people.
If you know me, you know I have my schedule planned out for 2-3 weeks in advance just because the more organized I am, the more I am able to concentrate on the important things in life. I can spend the extra time going over my training schedules and data from various training sessions instead of hustling and trying to get the next day organized. When I stay organized, it helps me keep out all that extra anxiety in my head. The variety of the lifestyle I have is what keeps life FUN! I think having a balanced lifestyle is one of the huge reasons I ENJOY what I’m doing so much. Whether its intervals in a run workout, training with various groups of people throughout the week, exploring new training areas- all of this always keeps me on the tip of my toes when it comes to training.
I know you need to love what you’re doing in order to be:
- Happy in life 2. Be able to succeed in whatever you’re doing.
Since I am the biggest girly girl when it comes to triathlon, my workout bag might make some people laugh. It also includes a little of everything since I swim, bike, and run ( I actually have multiple workout bags- one for swim, one for bike, and one for running) – A few of my favorite things from each include; a funky pattern swimsuit, cap, & goggles. I always carry suntan lotion, lotion (chlorine eats away my skin) bandaids, and chapstick in every bag. I also carry pink and black athletic tape with me at ALL times. I’m a huge fan of headbands so I usually have multiple headbands in each bag. I have gotten better but I haven’t always been the greatest with tools BUT this multi-tool has become my BFF- anything that needs to be fixed on either of my bikes – this multi-tool will fix! My pink Rudy sunglasses are a must for when I’m biking or running and I always carry a change of workout clothes.
Never, Never, Never Give Up…MK
Always a pleasure and inspiration with MK and join me in cheering her on this season and onward to Rio 2016!! xx, a-m
You can refer to mine and MK’s conversation from July here: http://www.amfit.guru/turn-down-for-what/
To view video Click Here
LaGRANGE, Ill. (WLS) —
So what do you do when you work hard enough in your sport to have a shot at the Olympics, but then the committee cancels your competition?
If you’re Mary Kate Callahan, you switch gears and set your sights on becoming an “Ironman.”
Callahan is ranked fourth in the world in her para-athlete classification, and she says that’s just the beginning. Despite being paralyzed from the waist down, she is a lightning-fast racer and a fierce competitor. She is now prepping for a new title.
Most people don’t think much about their shoulders, but for 19-year-old Callahan, it’s an area of heavy concentration.
“My shoulders are like anyone else’s legs, I guess,” she said. “My shoulders and my arms, they’re put through the ringer I guess.”
A virus that attacked her spinal cord when she was just 5-months-old left her paralyzed from the waist down. But her disability has never slowed her down.
While attending Fenwick High School, she was captain of the 2012 state championship runner-up swim team and sued the Illinois High School Association to allow disabled swimmers to compete at the state championship level.
“I kinda tried all the sports out there,” she said. “I did snow skiing, water skiing, tennis. You name it, I probably tried it. But I really found a love for swimming and eventually swimming led into triathlon and I haven’t looked back since.”
In October 2014, she clocked an impressive two hour and 38-minute finish in the Chicago Marathon. She says she signed up to keep busy while waiting to hear if her sport would be included in the 2016 Olympics. The news was disappointing.
“What that means ultimately is that no girls in wheelchairs will be competing in Rio for the sport of para-triathlon in 2016,” she said.
Now, the LaGrange, Ill., native is concentrating on staying healthy. She sees the same shoulder specialist who treats the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls. His medical group is also a sponsor for her sport.
“A unique athlete like that as we all know needs personal support, spiritual support, financial support and medical support,” said Dr. Gregory Nicholson, Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush. “It’s a category of athlete that I don’t think people think about too much. It deals with a lot of things adolescence and pediatrics, disability, high-level competitive athletics and so we’re very proud to help support Mary Kate.”
She says she can hardly wait to achieve her next goal, completing the Ironman Competition. That includes swimming, biking and running.
“To hear those words: ‘Mary Kate you are an Ironman,’ after you compete for almost 13 hours in a day, I’m so excited and I think that’s what’s going to drive me these next couple of months,” she said.
Callahan is hopeful she will compete in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. She is currently in Orlando participating in the Disney marathon. Of course, we wish her good luck.
To view full article click here
Mary Kate Callahan, 19, has her athletic focus targeted on IRONMAN Louisville in October. As an infant a virus that settled in her spinal cord left Callahan a T8-T10 paraplegic. Her disability hasn’t deterred the University of Arizona psychology student from anything she has put her mind to. She has participated in just about every sport imaginable. In 2014 Callahan notched two wins, in addition to five podium finishes, in para-triathlons.
In high school, Callahan took on an advocacy role and was instrumental in forcing the Illinois High School Association to create opportunities for disabled swimmers to compete at the state championship level. As a result of her efforts, Callahan and six other girls were the first athletes with a disabilities to compete at an Illinois state championship swim meet.
Bitterly disappointed to learn that the women’s para-triathlon event would not be part of the Olympics in 2016, Callahan has turned her sights to IRONMAN racing. “I’m super excited to challenge myself in a whole new way in the sport of triathlon,” Callahan told IRONMAN.com this week. “I think hearing those words, ‘Mary Kate Callahan, you are an IRONMAN’ is what is going to drive me in training leading up to Louisville.”
August 27, 2014
Last year on home soil at the World Championships, Great Britain dominated the paratriathlon events with six gold medals and a total of 15 podium finishes. They will return their goliath team with gold in their eyes in Edmonton.
This year’s World Championships marks the first year the paratriathlon fields were limited to the most elite athletes in the sport classes, with the athletes having to qualify throughout the season in preparation for paratriathlon’s debut in Rio.
In the women’s PT1 division, three-time World Champion and four-time European Champion Jane Egan (GBR) will have the chance to race for her fourth world championship crown. Only two other paratriathletes have garnered four titles. However, this year she will vie with the USA’s Mary Catherine Callahan, who has been sweeping up wins in PATCO races.
Notably missing from the PTI lineup this year in the men’s race is four-time World Champion Bill Chaffey (AUS). Chaffey was on track to compete not only in Edmonton this week as well as at the 70.3 World Championships next weekend when his plans were derailed by a training accident that broke two bones in his pelvis. With Chaffey gone, the race is open for the taking. Although Geert Schipper(NED) has limited competition experience, he has won every race he’s done suggesting he is the wildcard to watch.
The USA’s Hailey Danisewicz will headline the women’s PT2 category as the reigning World Champion. Newcomer Nora Hansel (GER), who’s raced in just two paratriahtlon events, has been spotlighted as Danisewicz’ biggest threat.
Michele Ferrarin (ITA) has continued to fair well after claiming the men’s World TRI-3 and European TRI-3 titles last year, as well as collecting a win at the International Paratriathlon London event in the PT2 division this season. Look for Frenchman Geoffrey Wersy to put up a good fight in the PT2 division after placing second next to Ferrarin in London. Despite a sixth-place finish at last year’s World Championships, Brant Garvey (AUS) has shown potential with top finishes this season, as has Mark Barr (USA).
With undefeated records this year, look for Saskia Van Den Ouden (NED) and Sally Pilbeam (AUS) to duke it out in the women’s PT3 sport class. Despite a 13th-place finish in TRI-3 last year in London, Jamie Brown (USA) owns the top seed in the men’s race heading into Saturday with two wins under his belt this year. Daniel Molina(ESP) picked up important racing experience from cities like Yokohama to London this year & will line up in Edmonton with the title on his mind. But both Oliver Dreier (AUT) and Alessio Borgato (ITA) blew past Molina at European Championships this year suggesting this will be a a battle down the finish chute.
Although her undefeated recorded faltered slightly this season at the hands of compatriot Lauren Steadman, Faye McClelland remains one of the athletes to watch out for in the women’s PT4 category. She may have lost in season, but she still owns a perfect 4-0 record come World Championship time. Steadman, a two-time Paralympic swimmer, serves as McClelland’s stiffest competition with a swim that’s difficult to reel in.
In the men’s race Stefan Daniel represents Canada’s strongest hopes of a medal in the paratriathlon races with a No. 1 start. But he’ll contend with a tough field including three-time World Champion Yannick Bourseaux (FRA). Bourseaux has been battling with rival Martin Schulz (GER) all season, as well as attempting to ward off the young rising talent Spain’s Jairo Ruiz Lopez. Schulz beat out Bourseaux last year, as well as twice this year despite his low starting position.
Melissa Reid (GBR) and Susana Rodriguez (ESP) return after finishing first and second respectively to one another in 2013 to again race as the top women in the PT5 division. On the men’s side, the PT5 will be one of the most competitive races of the day. Aaron Scheidies (USA), who has only lost one race in his eight years of racing, will start as the favourite. The man that delivered Scheidies’ one loss was David Ellis (GBR), who won the TRI-6 category at last year’s World Championships and will defend his title in Canada. Add in Iain Dawson(GBR) to the mix and all bets are off.
Paratriathlon will be contested on Saturday following the men’s U23 World Championship race and the elite women’s Grand Final at 3:45pm, with the athletes being sent off in waves. A live finish cam will be available for paratriathlon, as well as a highlights video later that day. Follow @triahtlonlive on twitter for live updates.
June 28, 2014 Mary Kate wins ITU Chicago World Paratriathlon Event.. Click here to read more about it.
Nothing could stop Mary Kate Callahan from winning — or from smiling — during the ITU World Paratriathlon Chicago.
Not a substandard swim. Not a mechanical issue on her handcycle.
With dozens of family and friends looking on Saturday from the Buckingham Foundation plaza, Callahan was determined to cross the finish line in first place in the PT1 division.
That single-mindedness is what makes her a world-class athlete, said Callahan’s coach, Mark Sortino.
“She’s transitioned from being a teenage athlete to a mature teenage athlete,” said Sortino, who met Callahan in 2012 and is based in San Diego. “She’s very focused and very knowledgeable about competition.”
Callahan toured the course — a 750-meter swim in Monroe Harbor, and 20-kilometer bike ride and 5-kilometer run up and down Columbus Drive— in a time of 1 hour, 32.31 minutes. The victory kept Callahan, who is paralyzed from the waist down, the top-ranked American woman in the PT1 category and boosted her to No. 2 in the ITU’s Paratriathlon World Ranking behind Great Britain’s Jane Egan.
“I am definitely happy with the result and the time,” said Callahan, one of nearly 60 elite paratriathletes who competed in Chicago. “The swim was not as great as I normally do, and I had to make a stop in the wheel pit to fix something on my chain. I had a great race after that.”
Callahan trailed until the transition between the bike and run, and the LaGrange resident said having her own cheering section helped push her along, five days shy of her 19th birthday.
“That was a huge factor,” said Callahan, a 2013 graduate of Fenwick and incoming sophomore at Arizona. “It was the first time a ton of my family was able to see me race at an international level. I could hear people screaming the whole time, and I was able to feed off that energy.”
Back during her Fenwick days, she showed her determination while fighting the IHSA to add state competitions for disabled athletes. She got her way her senior year, in time to participate in her first state swim meet.
By then, Callahan had already been competing in triathlons since 2010. She said she was immediately addicted to the sport. Now, she has her sights set on making the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. It will be the first time the paratriathlon is contested at that level.
“Never in a million years did I think at that time I would be in this position,” she said. “That’s the goal.”
But Callahan isn’t getting ahead of herself. She has another ITU World Paratriathlon event July 19 in Magog, Canada. She said she’s hoping to qualify for the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in Edmonton, Canada on Aug. 29.
Callahan will spend the next couple of weeks training for the Magog race. She said she works out all over the Chicago area, including Chicago’s lakefront path, as well as the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. She also said she and Sortino will talk on the phone and communicate online to develop a game plan. Sortino was in Chicago on Saturday, but he went back to San Diego following the competition.
“We will take a look at [Saturday’s] race and look at ways to improve,” Callahan said. “He will be able to provide a lot of really good feedback in these next few weeks.”
As competitive and driven as Callahan is, Sortino said Callahan is someone who enjoys herself to the fullest.
“She’s friendly and gregarious and spends more time laughing than anything else,” Sortino said. “Those who know her know that when she’s focused, she’s hard to stop. But the competition doesn’t consume her completely. She’s good at moving on and thinking about the next day.”
Mary Kate and Dare2tri Executive Director Keri Schindler write an article for TriLife Magazine. Click here to view the article.