1. Would you please share a bit of your background and story prior to joining Dare2Tri?
My life and sports journey began when I was just 5 ½ months old. During the night a virus called Transverse Myelitis, attacked my spinal cord and left me a T8-T10 paraplegic. I began swimming as part of aqua therapy, joined my local swim club and never looked back.
At a very early age I began swimming as part of aqua therapy. I loved the water and the freedom it brought to me…….the buoyancy the water provided as I moved was a hugh equalizer in allowing me to be just one of the kids in the water. This is definitely why I gravitated to swimming right away. My swimming led to club team swimming and eventually to my team at Fenwick High School. Throughout my youth I also became very involved in variety of sports; track, field, water skiing, snow skiing, tennis. You name it, I probably tried it! Sports were a huge outlet for me growing up and I can honestly sit here and tell you that they helped shaped me into the person I am today.
As a high school student athlete with a disability, I also found myself advocating for the rights of disabled athletes in Illinois. As part of an effort to swim ata competitive high level I teamed up with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and Equip for equality . Together we forced the Illinois High School Association to create opportunities for disabled swimmers to compete at the state championship level. As a result of this effort, myself and six other girls were the first athletes with a disability in Illinois history to compete at a state championship swim meet.
2. How has Dare2Tri helped you reach your goals? Did you ever know that you'd be competing at this level - I mean, was it always kind of in the back of your mind or a "wow, I never thought I would be here" moment?
Dare2tri not only introduced me to the greatest sport out there but they welcomed me into the triathlon community! There’s something special about the people that are in this community, whether they are beginners or elite, they are all dreamers and motivators. I’m a people person and I truly believe every single person I’ve met in this community has helped shaped me in one way or another. What is so special about the paratriathlon community is that we all come from different walks of life, we all have “our stories,” but come together for our love of the sport! As athletes, we are constantly learning and whats so unique about this community of people is that we love working with each other to help one another succeed. We are friends, teammates, and we have practically become a little family! Never in a million years did I think I would get the opportunity to travel the world and compete on such an elite level in sport but because of Dare2tri I am.
3. What drew you to Dare2Tri and/or Triathlon? Was there a person or moment that made you realize this is exactly what you wanted to do?
I was pretty involved in sports since the age of six so I was able to meet some pretty great people throughout the years! Keri Serota (Executive Director of Dare2tri) used to work at an adaptive sport program where I was an athlete. Keri worked with me on a bunch of different sports and when they were in the beginning stages of creating Dare2tri, she introduced me to the sport of triathlon. I attended the first ever Dare2tri camp 6 years ago, crossed the finish line at the super sprint race that takes place on the last day of camp, and I was hooked! Three weeks after attending that camp I crossed my first official sprint distance race!
4. You broke the women's Ironman wheelchair record last year. What did that feel like?!
WOW! I still smile thinking about the day I became an Ironman! I had so much fun for 13:54 out on the course. Again, I love the energy each person has on the course and you definitely feel that energy throughout the whole entire day. That energy gets you through some of those dark miles when you feel like you have nothing left in the tank. I honestly had no real specific time goal…. okkk thats a lie - I just never really talked about it besides with my coach. My goal I set in my head was sub 15 hrs. - I knew I had a great swim and that any extra time I could get on the bike would be great! I came off the bike feeling really good so I just ran…and I guess I ran real fast!
At mile 13 on the run, I saw my parents and my Dad screamed out “Keri just texted me that if you finish sub 14 you’ll have set the hand cycle record.” I knew I was on target to finish right around 14hrs but hearing those words set off a little extra energy and off I went! Hearing the words, “Mary Kate Callahan, You are an Ironman,” made the entire year long journey worth it. I was reminded why I got into this sport and why I love it so much!
5. What aspect of the race do you find most challenging?
Right now I’m still in college, I’ll be a senior this fall! So balancing school, training, traveling for races, and a social life sometimes gets tough! I’ve been lucky to have a great group of friends, teammates, teachers, and coaches that help make everything a little easier. My friends understand when I can't stay out until 2 am because I have a long bike ride the next morning. My teammates push me in workouts and help keep my focus. My teachers understand when I need to be gone for a few days due to travel for races or events. My coach helps ensure that I get the most out of every training session we do. They key is surrounding yourself with good people and I’m pretty lucky to be able to sit here and say that my people rock!
6. I understand you have a lot of outreach work you do for the sport of paratriathlon and just returned from coaching para-athletes in Uzbekistan. That's incredible. Can you tell me a little more about that experience?
Yes, it’s one of my favorite things! When I started competing in sports I ALWAYS looked up to the older coaches and athletes! I was able to see everything they were capable of doing and knew that one day I would be capable of doing those same things! Now that I’m older, I love being able to work with other up and coming athletes.
I went to Uzbekistan as a Sport Envoy with the U.S. Department of State to go over and work with the Uzbekistan Paralympic Association coaches, trainers, athletes and future athletes. Since my background in triathlon began with swimming, I was specifically heading over there to work with the coaches and athletes in the pool. I had only know these people for seven days, but in those seven days, each and every one of them reminded me of why I got into the sport of triathlon and why I love it so much. At the end of the day, it’s way more than just swimming, biking and running — it’s about the journey. It has introduced me to so many amazing people.
In this big world it is pretty neat to see so many people come together for the love of sport. I was able to see that same passion for competing, learning and success that I see in my teammates and coaches back in the USA. Sports have given me so much the last 14 years, so being able to share my love of sport with another part of the world was such a special opportunity.
6. You have a number of seasons under your belt and at the elite level to boot. What might you say to someone who is just starting out?
Patience! Triathlon can seem really complicated but I try to look at each part of the triathlon as a single event when you’re starting out. First and foremost though, learn how to love the sport first! I truly believe we are 100x more successful at something if we enjoy it. Have fun & Never Never Never Give Up!