Photos: Kyle Nowaczyk
“I’m your average 26-year-old girl who loves to race, who loves going out with friends and traveling, and is a true athlete at heart. I’m also a 26-year-old who uses a wheelchair.” But Mary Kate Callahan is anything but average. With an eleven-year elite racing history to her name, Callahan, who was paralysed as an infant from a spinal cord virus, represented the USA all over the world becoming a four-time CAMTRI Paratriathlon American Championship medalist, USA Paratriathlon National Champion in 2016, Yokohama ITU champion in 2016, and claiming three top 10 finishes at the world cups across her career. Her performances speak for themselves but while they are impressive, what makes Callahan far beyond average is her unbounded positivity and drive to empower others.
“I have this happy-go-lucky attitude,” Callahan says. “At 5am on the pool deck in the morning or 10pm at night, I’m just someone who tries to embrace every single second in life that I can.” Even in the depths of grueling competition, Callahan says her smile was also her power source. “People used to joke that my game face is a huge smile. If you’re going to push your body and work really hard, I just think you might as well enjoy it and that’s just the mentality I took for the last 11 years of my elite racing career.”
Recently, Callahan decided to close her chapter of elite racing, but she continues working in paratriathlon, mentoring, educating, and raising awareness for parasport.
“I realised my fulfillment never came from being on the podium or the medals I was winning; my fulfillment came from getting to talk to a school and showing them my bikes, showing them how I ride a bike and how I run, raising awareness, educating people, and also being a mentor for new athletes coming up the pipeline.”
“There’s never enough hours in the day because I just want to help more and more people,” Callahan says. “Looking back, it would’ve been nice to have that person in a wheelchair or with a disability to see what they were doing…to be able to ask questions… Now, more than ever I have a place in my heart to be that person for the next generation of kids that are growing up with disabilities.”
Callahan’s career, on and off the field of play, is a tribute to her mindset and it’s exactly why her message is worth listening to, so much so that she is often labelled as inspiring. However, despite all that she has accomplished in and out of competition, Callahan doesn’t connect with that characterization. “It’s more about empowering than inspiring,” she explains.
“‘Inspiring’ is a very triggering word for a lot of people with disabilities. At the end of the day this is the life we are living and have to live, and we are just going about our day-to-day life. I want to be looked at as an athlete first rather than an athlete with a disability.”
Her message of empowerment?
“The sky is honestly the limit. When you put time and energy in and you’re dedicated and motivated, and you surround yourself with a community of people, you can really do anything. I’ve realized that more and more every year of my life and I want people to know that I want to help them and be a resource for them to find their starting line—whether it’s a triathlon, a dream, or a goal they’re chasing—it really boils down to humans can do anything.”