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Editor’s note: Gangs Out of Downey will host its annual fundraising luncheon March 12. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased by calling Ray Mesler at (562) 862-8141, ext. 223. This feature story on Katy Sullivan originally ran July 7, 2011, as she was attempting to qualify for the Paralympic Games.
DOWNEY – When Katy Sullivan was born without legs, it seemed inconceivable that she was really born to run.
Growing up in Alabama, Katy’s family and friends didn’t treat her as if her limb loss was a problem. “I never realized I was different,” she said. “If I noticed kids staring at me, I would go up to them and answer all their questions. I became an expert at blending in.”
She got the acting bug as a child. “I saw a production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at a local theatre in Alabama,” Katy said. “One of the girls in the play attended my school, and before the play was over I decided that I was going to be an actor. I spent the next ten years doing anything in the theatre from building sets to stage management – just to be involved in the process.”
Katy earned a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from Western University in St. Louis, then won a part in a play directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman at the prestigious Goodman Theatre in Chicago. “My parents moved to Alabama so I could avoid winter,” she said. “Then as soon as I had a choice, I moved to a place that had some of the worst winters in the world!”
She came to Southern California in 2004 and soon decided to try running. But her running legs and feet were very different than what she was used to. “The carbon graphite feet are very springy,” Katy said. “It was difficult at first to get the feel for them. If there had been a hopping event at track meets, I would have been first every time.”
Katy had never run in her life. “I was asking my body to do something it clearly wasn’t ready to do,” she said. Soon she had a serious fall and badly damaged her back. Will Yule, her prosthetist from Hangar Prosthetics and Orthotics, recommended she go to Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center for Rehabilitation.
When she arrived at Rancho, she began working with physical therapist Julie Kasayama.
“I had several appointments a week with Julie, and soon she helped me learn about the mechanics of running,” Katy said. “Running without knees is a very different process than what able-bodied athletes experience, because my prsosthetic legs don’t bend. Also, the energy expended by an amputee is three times as great as that expended by an able-bodied person.
“Julie was remarkable,” she said. “Many, many times, she jogged with me on baseball fields and tracks on her own time. She was as determined as I was that I would be able to run one day.” Day by day, week by week, month by month, Katy got better and better. “Then one day my goal of running track was in sight,” she said.
Katy started running in track meets, and quickly established herself as a rising star. “I began to compete at a higher level and started to excel in the competitive world of physically challenged sports.” Since there were no other bilateral (both legs) above-knee amputee women competing, she was running against women who had one sound leg and one leg amputated above the knee. This was a significant disadvantage, but it didn’t stop Katy.
She participated in the 2007 Para Pan Games in Rio de Janiero and in the 2007 Paralympic National Championships. “At the Nationals, I broke a nine-year old World Record for my category by nearly a second with a time of 39.41 seconds,” Katy said. “I had gone from baby jogging steps to sprinting onto the world stage.”
Racing changed the game for Katy, but positive changes also occurred in many other parts of her life. Most importantly, she met fellow patient and future husband Jay Cramer at Rancho. He had recently suffered a major spinal cord injury in a rock-climbing accident and was in rehabilitation on his way to becoming a noted stand-up comedian. “Jay has the warmest heart of anyone I know,” she said. Today he is the Director of the Performing Arts of Rancho program and Katy is one of his stars.
Her career was suddenly on a roll, too, as she landed a continuing role as Tiffany on “My Name is Earl”. She also posed for the cover of Mobilita Magazine, Europe’s highest-circulation publication for individuals with disabilities.
But then fate took a hand–Katy contracted mononucleosis, and her hopes of competing in the 2008 Paralympic Games in China were dashed. Katy put her dreams away for another day, and focused on her acting career.
“Working in television, movies and independent films in Los Angeles keeps me very busy,” she said. “When I’m not acting or running, I travel around the United States and give motivational speeches at schools and corporations. My message is that no matter what life throws at you, you can rise above it all and be successful.”
As her acting career accelerated, Katy still yearned to fulfill her destiny as an athlete. At age 31, she is significantly older than most of her competitors. But that doesn’t bother her at all.
“If you believe in what you are doing and you want to do it, go for it and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it,” Katy said. So she took to the track again, and several interesting developments occurred.
“I met a young woman named Vanessa from Germany, who also was a double above-the-knee amputee,” Katy said. “After she lost her legs in a car accident, she was shown a video of my running-and she said it changed her life.”
“Meeting Vanessa made me think about how each us of has a ripple effect in life, and how we touch people with everything we do,” Katy said. “I always try to remember that the things that make you different are also the things that make you special.”
Katy found that her hectic schedule over the past four years had not dampened her speed on the track. After just missing a podium position at the World Championships in January in Christchurch, New Zealand, Katy was determined to make the U.S. Paralympic team by winning the 100 meters at the U.S. Championships in Miami last month.
“As I looked around at the other women in the race, I thought about how young they all were,” Katy said. “It feels like I was a part of getting them there, like I am part of a legacy in U.S. and Paralympic sport. They are the future and I will be proud to someday hand off the reigns to them-but not quite yet!”
“My mom was at the stadium pulling for me, and I felt that I ran a pretty good race,” Katy said.
She raced across the finish line first in 17.68 seconds, becoming the U.S. Paralympic Champion. Her victory also earned her a berth on the team that will represent America at the 2012 Paralympics in London. (Update: Katy finished sixth in the 100M race but set a new American record in the process.)
“The first time I put on a USA jersey, it was an incredible rush,” Katy said. “It also comes with a heavy responsibility, because you want to bring home medals and do well for your country. I am looking forward to being on that podium in London next year!”
Katy is also moving forward on several other fronts. “I am working towards some new sponsorships, building new motivational speeches, writing a blog and a book and taking meetings with major decision makers in the entertainment world,” she said. “But first and foremost, I am an actor, and my long-term goals lie there. I want to continue to work as an actor and someday star in a sitcom.”
Katy and Jay are also grateful that Rancho is a major part of their lives. “Rancho is a place that creates hope for the seemingly hopeless, creates a path for the seemingly impassible and creates action for those who are stuck,” she said. “I think of how far I’ve come since Julie and I began jogging around Rancho and Apollo Park, and I realize how fortunate I was to be touched by the magic of Rancho,” Katy said.
“Jay and I also consider ourselves lucky to have the opportunity to reach out to people and change the perception of what people with disabilities can accomplish.”
Published: Feb. 27, 2014 – Volume 12 – Issue 46