Paratriathlete doesn’t let disability slow her
St. Charles Saturday 10/13/12 Fenwick's Mary Kate Callahan cheers on teammates at St. Charles North High School. | Jerry Daliege~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 19, 2012 8:09PM
LA GRANGE — Seventeen-year-old Mary Kate Callahan lost the use of the lower half of her body to permanent paralysis after contracting tranxverse myelitis — a neurological disease — at the age of 5 months. But she has made the best of her situation through her passion for athletics, and later this month she will demonstrate her skills on a global stage.
On Monday, Callahan will compete for Team USA at the International Triathlon Union World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand. She and her parents will join the U.S. triathlon team on the 17-hour journey to the world’s most prestigious annual triathlon event.
“I’m excited to see the competitors from all around the world,” said Callahan, who is the youngest of Team USA’s 31 members. “I was on the 2010 junior national team for swimming and competed in the Czech Republic, but this is my first international competition for the triathlon.”
Callahan, a senior at Fenwick High School who lives in La Grange, will participate in the paratriathlon (derived from Paralympic) in the TRI 1 category, which includes athletes who cannot use their legs. She swims, bikes and runs, using special equipment when necessary and her unparalleled will to compete.
Joining Callahan on the U.S. team from the Chicago area is Hailey Danisewicz, a 21-year-old senior at Northwestern University who lost her right leg to cancer at age 14. She competes in TRI 2, which is for athletes with severe leg impairment.
“It’s an incredible opportunity, and it is just now starting to sink in that it is really happening,” Danisewicz said. “This is my first international competition, and the first time I’m doing the race not just for myself but representing my country.”
Callahan has always competed in sports despite her physical setback.
“I started swimming competitively when I was around 6,” Callahan said. “I just wanted to fit in with everyone else. Doing sports, you are able to compare yourself to your friends who are able-bodied. There really is no difference between us and them. I wanted to be able to relate to all my other friends in school.
“But then I loved the competition. It was something I needed in my life. It has shaped who I am today. I can’t imagine my life without sports,” she said.
Keri Schindler, executive director of dare2tri, a Chicago-based organization that supports paratriathletes, said Callahan is a natural athlete because she knows no other lifestyle.
“She doesn’t remember not having a disability, and she has been involved in sports since she was first able to do so,” Schindler said. “Growing up, athletics were a part of her life, and she needed to be active.”
Callahan transitioned to triathlons to stave off boredom with swimming, which remains her favorite athletic activity. “I love doing something different every day and not being stuck with one sport,” she said. “You have new challenges, and can see your strengths and weaknesses in different areas.”
In TRI 1 competition, athletes use a wheelchair for the run and a handcycle for the biking portion. Following the regular triathlon format, they first swim (“Swimming is something I am comfortable with, so it is nice to get comfortable at the beginning of the race,” Callahan said), then move to the bike segment and finally the run.
The sports are not the only challenging parts of the race — the transitions between the swim, bike and run require just as much preparation.
“People say the transition is almost like another sport,” Callahan said. “You have to practice and go through your head. I’m allowed to have two handlers through transition, and they need to know what you need. It is almost like competing in four sports.”
Callahan is now in search of a college that will allow her to continue her athletic pursuits, and she has an eye on the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“When I get older, I want to be a lawyer, but right now, I want to continue with triathlons,” Callahan said.