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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.”