Photos: KYLE NOWACZYK
The future of parasport, according to para triathlete Mary Kate Callahan, is integration. Callahan, who recently retired as one of the top US para triathletes, says integration was the key to her participation in sport and plays a “huge part” for the future of parasport.
“I raced on an [able-bodied] collegiate team,” Callahan says. “Whether it’s integration at the club level and athletes with disabilities are on abled-bodied swim teams or abled-bodied track and field teams, really that integration there, that’s where awareness kicks in and then parasport becomes the norm.”
Integration is not the norm, however, much less parasport. Callahan says she grew up without seeing other disabled athletes and had to fight for the right to race when she was growing up. “I want to be looked at as an athlete first rather than an athlete with a disability. Society is getting better and better, but they see the disability first,” Callahan says. Now that the 26-year-old has stepped back from elite racing, she is even more passionate about being an advocate for parasport.
“Continuing to educate, spread awareness, and speak at schools is really important to me and I know it’s really important to other athletes,” Callahan affirms. Along with public speaking, Callahan also works as a mentor for paratriathlon and helps anyone who reaches out. “There’s never enough hours in the day because I just want to help more and more people,” Callahan says. “Whether it’s coaching or mentoring or talking to schools, I walk out of those engagements and I can tell that a person or that group of people have been impacted.”
Callahan knows she can’t see the changes parasport needs working only at the grassroots level. “A combined effort is going to really make that change happen,” she explains, pointing to the work the sport federations are doing and events like the London Paralympic Games. “I think we saw a huge pivot in society in terms of just recognising what the Paralympics are,” Callahan says. “What London 2012 was able to do was truly amazing for parasport and we’ve taken small incremental steps since then.”
An important part of awareness, Callahan explains, is social media and marketing and more and more bigger brands are starting to recognizing parasport. “We saw in the lead up to the Tokyo Games, bigger companies jumping on the band wagon of supporting para athletes and having them on commercials,” Callahan says. “When you see someone who has a physical disability who’s an athlete represented on these platforms during prime time of the Games, that eight-year-old kid who is watching TV or the Games might ask questions—that’s where the awareness starts to build.”
From the grassroots to the highest levels of sport, Callahan hopes all the education and awareness will push to normalize parasport and lead to integration so that everyone can play, participate, and race.