CHICAGO – All it took was one race and Mary Kate Callahan was hooked.
Callahan, paralyzed below the waist, said she was immediately in love with competing in paratriathlons as soon as she finished her first race.
She picked up a big win on June 28 as the 2013 Fenwick graduate and La Grange native crossed the finish line in first place in the PT1 division of the International Triathlon Union World Paratriathlon Chicago, which finished in Grant Park. She completed her race, which consisted of a 750-meter swim, a 12-mile bike ride with a hand cycle and a 5K run on a racing chair, in 1:32.31.
"That was my first international win," Callahan said. "I've been racing a lot of international races for world rankings. The last two I've raced in I came in second, so it was nice to break that streak."
Callahan is touring ITU races around the world to improve her world ranking. She previously competed in the Pan American Games in Dallas and went to Yokohama, Japan, for a race in May.
She has more races ahead, but the long-term goal is to make the Paralympic Games in 2016. The Rio de Janeiro games will be the first where paratriathlon will be an Olympic event.
"Ultimately my goal is Rio in 2016," Callahan said. "I got a lot more to go until then, but every race counts. Hopefully I stay up there as the top US girl right now. Each race is getting more and more competitive.
"Hopefully I'm up there with a US uniform when paratriathlon makes its debut."
When Callahan was 5 1/2 months old a virus attacked her spinal cord which led to her becoming a T8-T10 paraplegic. That hasn't slowed her down one bit.
Callahan started swimming at age six and represented Fenwick at the IHSA state swimming meet her senior year, the first year the IHSA had swimming events at state for athletes with disabilities. She competed in four races and won her division in the 100-yard breaststroke.
"I always loved swimming and then I met Keri Serota [Executive Director at dare2tri, which provides disabled athletes the chance to compete in triathlons] and she got me into triathlon," Callahan said. "That was four years ago and little did I know I would be competing at the international level."
Serota was one of Callahan's swimming coaches and a triathlete. After one race Callahan saw the addictive quality of triathlons.
The three different aspects of the paratriathlon for Callahan all revolve around upper body strength.
"It's different motions, but your shoulders are sore after a race," Callahan said.
When she was looking for colleges, Callahan was determined to go to a school out west where triathlons are popular. In addition to a number of California schools, Callahan visited the University of Arizona and found her new home.
At Arizona, Callahan is a member of the TriCats club where she trains and competes with able-bodied athletes.
"I'll go to their swim workouts and their bike workouts because I like training with a group of people," Callahan said. "I'll travel with them to races and it's great. The international races are fun, but it's great to be able to race with friends."
She recently completed her freshman year and is still undecided on her major, but has ambitions of being a lawyer. Callahan may use the mental and physical toughness she has developed in the court room, but doesn't plan to give up racing any time soon.
"I definitely want to stay involved with triathlon the rest of my life," she said. "After Rio, I definitely have an itch to do Iron Man distances."
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