USA Paratriathlete and University of Arizona Paratriathlete, Mary Kate Callahan does not back down from a challenge. At 5 ½ months old, she contracted transverse myelitis, a rare neurological disease that left her a T8-T10 paraplegic. Since that time, she has led anything but a life that one might expect of someone paralyzed from the waist down. Mary Kate fell in love with swimming, relying on her upper body to power her through the pool. Her passion for the sport led her to where she is now. She is, without a doubt, a bright light in my life and I am so honored to have met her, worked with her and now be able to share her inspirational journey with you. This comes with a warning… her smile is in fact contagious ;)!
AM: Who inspires you and why?
MC: That’s a hard question because so many people in my life inspire me. I don’t believe someone has to be this BIG DEAL to be able to inspire other people. I always say my friends and family inspire me most. They are the people around me most and they have been through it all. They inspire me to try to be a well rounded person because having a balanced life is so important, especially when you’re competing at this level. You want to be focused during races and workouts but you also do not want to let it consume you. My coaches and teammates also inspire me to be the best athlete I can be. Seeing my teammates racing or at workouts drives me to want to be a better athlete and I think driving off another athlete is a great thing for both your athletic and mental well-being.
AM: From one swimmer to another (fist bump and woot woot) Can you share some of your favorite highlights of your life journey with me?
MC: I treasure so many moments but these two hold a special place in my heart: During High School, I swam all 4 years with my team. The early swim practices, the dual meets, the double practices… I did it all. But the sports association governing all of Illinois high school sports would not allow people with disabilities to compete at state. We asked them to adopt a qualifying standard (just like able-bodied athletes) – but they refused. Long story short… during my junior year of high school, myself and the Illinois Attorney General sued the Illinois High School Sports Association (IHSA) and when it came time for my senior year swim season, we had a settlement agreement that would allow athletes with physical disabilities to try to qualify for state. So in November of 2012- myself and 7 other athletes with disabilities made history and swam in 4 different events at the state championship. I remember finishing the first event and the crowd was on their feet not because they felt sorry for us, but because they realized we are athletes just like everyone else. The whole process (lawsuit, depositions) was because I didn’t want any other kid to have to feel like they were being pushed to the sideline because of their disability…especially in high school. High School sports are so important~ during those 4 years.. besides the sports aspect of it- you learn so many life lessons and meet so many great people. Second would be from this past June. I competed in the ITU Chicago Elite Paratriathlon Race. I have been traveling around the world the last few months racing in three ITU races to try to earn points towards my world ranking but this one was extra special… not only was it in the USA but it was also in my hometown! 65 elite paratriathletes from around the world were coming right here to racing the greatest city (I’m a little biased towards Chicago 🙂 ) But this was going to be one of the first times all my friends and family were going to be able to see me race on the international level. I knew it was going to be a tough race but I was able to come out on top. Having my friends and family right there for my first win at an international race… life couldn’t get much better that day!
AM: What do you think are a few valuable lessons when it comes to controlling the mind/mental aspect of training?
MC: Patience is key! My coach and I talk about different ways to improve things and I have learned that it’s not going to happen overnight. If you’re consistent and keep working on it.. You’ll get the result. The biggest thing is always stay positive! The second you let a negative thought into your head, you’re not going to be able to take it back and it will affect you. Especially in races, if you don’t have the greatest swim or if something happens to your bike, you need to be able to deal with it but then move on as quickly as possible…otherwise it could cost you the race. I’m a big visualizer before races so yes… you need to be able to know how to handle some situations should something go wrong, but when I’m thinking about a race- I keep it positive!
AM: You ALWAYS do! That’s one of the first things I noticed about you and what was such a draw in wanting to work with you!!
AM: When did you know you wanted to compete and become a paratriathlete?
MC: For a long time I thought I was going to go down the swimming route… but little did I know when I completed my first triathlon– I would be hooked. I had always done track when I was little and then I rode my bike whenever my friends were on their bike so I just threw all three together. A coach and now a good friend, Keri Serota, had just started a paratriathlon club (dare2tri) based out of Chicago so the timing was perfect. She was one of the main reasons I did my first triathlon after it was announced it would make its debut in the 2016 Paralympics! From that moment on, I knew what road I wanted to head down. It’s not an easy road but I’m willing and ready to do whatever it will take to get there.
AM: What fuels you mentally, physically, emotionally to wake every day and go out and be your best?
MC: Truly, I love what I’m doing. If I didn’t love it – I wouldn’t be able to stick to the sport. You’ll do better at something if you are actually enjoying it. Can I say sometimes my muscles hurt and I just want to sleep in like a regular college student? Yes…but only for a few seconds. I think about how far I have come and how much I want that end goal and how I won’t let anything stop me. I get to compete in something I love, while traveling the world and meeting so many inspiring people- that’s what fuels me 🙂
AM: What are some of your daily rituals and yes, I think I already know the answer as we are similar here :)?
MC: Quotes, Quotes, Quotes. I wake up extra early to find a few quotes that I will get in my head before I start my day! My friends know all about my addiction because more likely than not, I will send all my favorite quotes (which is basically every single one) to them early in the morning.
AM: If you could send a message to some of the other athletes out there up and coming, that you wish had been told to you, what would it be?
MC: It won’t always be easy…but it’s ALWAYS worth it Always remember to smile and have fun!
AM: What’s next on your bucket list?
MC: Right now I’m focusing on racing in the ITU races, I’m heading to World Championships at the end of August so I’m just gearing up for that. A few years from now I would love to start getting into 70.3 and Ironman distances but for right now.. Rio is on my mind 🙂
AM: How do you best practice self care- nutrition, massage, skin, fashion, meditation, etc.
MC: I am a nutrition fanatic. With working out so much and having to be able to recover between workouts, I make sure I know exactly what I am putting into my body. I love making lists, so I’ll plan out my week for food and give the list to either my mom or dad. I do enjoy cooking but sometimes I don’t get home until 7ish from practice and when I get home I’m HUNGRY…so my mom always tries to make sure dinner is ready then. With my upper body doing ALL of the work, massage is a huge part of my recovery. Sometimes I wish I could drop my arms off for 24 hours and have them massaged but since that is impossible- I have just started going to a new massage therapist and she is great. She knows how much stress is being put on my arms so she targets those areas. I always get massages two days before I race too. Not only does it relax my body but also my mind that is always running 24/7. I have just started getting into yoga so it’s too soon to tell, but I hope I like it because I think that’s something my mind needs… time to just focus on my breathing and again, trying to stop my mind from thinking too much. HAHA. I call myself the diva triathlete… and so does everyone else. My helmets must match my bikes and my toenail polish must match my bikes. I practically live in workout clothes so I will dress up whenever I get the chance…. even if its to a team meeting. Instead of shorts, I’ll wear a black tennis skirt to bring out my inner diva. The latest trend during races is attaching my race numbers with PINK SPARKLY duct tape instead of the regular grey duct tape.
AM: As always, I LOVE sharing time with you! You are such a beautiful inspiration that I know is providing a positive impact to so many. I am grateful to have had this opportunity to share some of your awesomeness with others and I have no doubt your attitude and outlook has turned someone’s day around! I look forward to following your journey, cheering you on and watching your celebrations of success and growth MC. Keep turning it up and never, never, never give up!!! xx, a-m