Paralympic athlete Mary Kate Callahan has been setting new standards for disabled athletes long before she won the 2016 USA Paratriathlon National Championships at age 20—often without even meaning to. When she participated in the 340-mile relay known as the Speed Project 4.0 earlier this year as part of Strava’s all-women team, Callahan’s role as the event’s first wheelchair athlete came as a surprise. “It provided a little extra motivation; it’s unintentionally breaking barriers,” Callahan said. Paralyzed from the waist down after contracting transverse myelitis as an infant, Callahan grew up determined to stay active and has turned that resolve into a professional career that started with swimming, blossomed in triathlon and most recently expanded to long-distance running.
What first interested you in athletic competition?
I was injured as a baby, when I was 5 1/2 months old. Life in a wheelchair is the only life I knew. I come from a big family: I have an older brother and many, many cousins. All of my cousins were involved in sport in one way or another.
My parents sent me to school, and I was the only kid with a disability. When I was in grade school, all of my friends were involved in soccer and swimming and tennis. I wanted something to go back to school and talk to my friends about. When they were talking about their swim meets or their soccer games or basketball games, I wanted to be able to talk about my sports. My parents got me involved with an able-bodied swim team when I was in first grade. That was my first introduction to sport. At that time, I was never winning races, I was never the first kid to the wall. For me, it was about pushing myself and pushing boundaries from a really young age.
That introduction to swimming led my parents to research more about sports that are specifically designed for athletes with disabilities. Third grade was my first introduction to wheelchair basketball and wheelchair racing. I played wheelchair tennis, I water-skied, I snow-skied, I probably tried all the sports out there. I’m so thankful that my parents allowed me to find my niche. I swam competitively until I was in high school, and that’s when I had my introduction to the sport of triathlon. I’ve now been able to compete around the world at an elite level, which is a truly remarkable experience, representing the United States and meeting athletes from all over the world.
What does it mean to you to break so many boundaries, as you did with the Speed Project 4.0?
The greatest thing that running and sport has provided me is to be able to break barriers or stereotypes that exist for athletes with disabilities and really showing that there’s no barrier we can’t overcome. I’m running for the same reasons everyone else is running for. Hopefully being out there and pushing alongside every runner will be meaningful and show the entire running community that we aren’t any different; we’re runners, just like everyone else.
Running is one of the few sports where disabled athletes can compete alongside able-bodied athletes in the same race. It’s just a very powerful testament to what sport can do for the human being.
What role do you see yourself filling as a pro athlete?
To have a voice is one of the most powerful things you can do: Stand up for yourself, stand up for your community. I try as much as possible to integrate myself with able-bodied athletes, and I think that’s what we’ll see more disabled athletes doing. You still have the Olympics and the Paralympics, but I train with an able-bodied running group. I think that’s when you push yourself to be the best you can be.
One of the things I love doing most is going out and speaking to kids and really educating people because knowledge is power. When you give kids the opportunity to ask questions, whether they’re about being in a wheelchair or using a racing chair or the equipment I run in, you’re really just providing knowledge. That’s going to make these kids much more aware, so the next time they do have an encounter with someone who’s a disabled athlete, they’re going to be comfortable around them.
Everyone asks, “What’s your key to success? How have you gotten to this point?” I always say that I really just have fun with it.
What are some of your gym bag essentials?
Inside my gym bag I have a smaller tool bag, because I race with a lot of equipment. My multitools and my Allen keys are my most prized possessions. If something breaks, it can usually be fixed with an Allen key or a multitool. Spare tubes, a spare tire, a CO2 cartridge—that’s to fix any flats on my racing chair or hand cycle. A swimsuit, goggles, a cap—that’s all for swimming. I keep headphones in my bag, because if I’m training indoors, I’ll have headphones on. My water bottle, my helmet.
I wouldn’t say I have a gym bag; it’s really just the back of my car that holds everything I need. I’m usually driving to different trails or different places where I run. When I’m in my racing chair or hand cycle, I don’t wear shoes because of where my feet are placed. I never get to rock super-cool running shoes, but I always make sure that my sock game is on point.
Mary Kate’s Advice for Aspiring Disabled Athletes
Callahan credits much of her success to the joy she feels while training and racing, but she’s also aware that sticking up for herself is part of what made her journey possible. “Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and try new things,” she advises. “No one knows you better than you. When you speak up, you’re not only speaking up for yourself—you’re likely educating someone else.”