Rancho's Katy Sullivan headed to London for Paralympics

INDIANAPOLIS - Overcoming a disastrous start, Rancho graduate patient Katy Sullivan made a miraculous comeback to win the 100-meter race in her classification at the Paralympic Trials last Saturday. A day later, the U.S. Olympic Committee named her to the team that will represent the United States at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.

Katy races in the above the knee amputee category. All her competitors have only one leg amputated, but Katy was born with legs that end far above the knee and thus is considered a bilateral above the knee amputee. This is theoretically a huge disadvantage for Katy, but she never lets anything stop her from achieving her goals.

At the start, Katy's Indianapolis adventure was anything but excellent. Last Friday, the day before her big race, a vacuum valve on one of her prosthetic legs malfunctioned. "I had to go to Home Depot to get a socket wrench and the other tools I needed to repair the leg myself," she said. Then on race day, the mercury nearly reached 100 degrees in Indianapolis, which was trapped in the giant heat wave that has swept the nation in the last week. When Katy's race went off at 7:30 p.m., the air temperature was about 90 degrees, but the all-weather track at Michael Carroll Stadium was much hotter.

"When we got into the blocks I felt good and I was excited to run," Katy said. But seconds later, disaster struck. As the gun sounded, Katy slipped in the blocks and fell at least 10 meters behind each of the five other competitors in the race. In a 100-meter race, it is virtually impossible to make up such a large deficit. But not for Katy.

"I was thinking about turnover, making as many strides as I could as fast as I could," Katy said. "At 20 meters, I was still trailing the field. I'd been taught that I could run my fastest if I relaxed, but I gritted my teeth and moved my arms as fast as possible, because the faster you move your arms, the faster your legs go. I was also digging into the track as hard as I could."

At 50 meters, Katy was gaining with every stride and had caught up with the pack, but she still trailed race leader Ping Liu by several strides. At 80 meters, Katy moved up to Liu's shoulder. "When I caught up to her, she looked over at me, and that hesitation allowed me to go by her."

Katy was flying! She pulled away to win the race by a full stride in 18.04 seconds. The time was slower than Katy's personal best (and the American record) of 17.59 seconds, but considering the time she lost at the start, it was an amazing result.

"It was unbelievable," Katy said. "There are no words to describe what I felt at that moment. To have that bad start and still be able to come in first is phenomenal."

Although she had become the national champion, she still hadn't clinched a spot on the U.S. Paralympic track and field team. She would have to wait nearly 24 hours...until a closed-door athletes-only meeting at 5 p.m. on Sunday...to find out if she would be running in London. There are only 54 spots on the U.S. Paralympic Track Team, and only 19 of those spots are being filled by women.

"As we walked into the private meeting Sunday, there were more than 100 athletes hoping to make the team," Katy said. "I knew I was on the bubble. Then they started to announce the team, ladies first."

Katy knew there were only 19 spots, and she used her fingers to count off each woman selected. "When I realized they were calling out the names in alphabetical order, I thought to myself, 'why didn't I change my name when I married my husband Jay Cramer?' But I didn't and I had to wait it out. When they got to the 15th girl, I looked at my hands and they were shaking. Finally, the 18th girl was announced...and it was me! When they said my name, I burst into tears. I had accomplished my dream of qualifying for the Paralympic Games!" When she called her husband, they each had tears streaming down their faces. "Jay's my biggest fan," Katy said. "He helps me get up at 4:30 in the morning to begin my training, and he even helps me do my hill sprints."

"To me, Katy is the embodiment of the human spirit," Jay said. "I get to see it all, the highs and the lows, and even after that start, she accomplished the impossible."

Katy's family was also very emotional. "They are just so proud, and that makes me even happier," Katy said. "Growing up, I was the only one of my siblings that wasn't a top athlete. In fact, I never considered myself an athlete, because I've always considered myself an actor."

Katy said she started running as an outlet for exercise and improved health, when she got a boost from Hanger Prosthetics and Rancho therapist Julie Kasayama.

Now, seven years later, all the dedication has paid off. "To be the national champion in the 100 meters is extraordinary. After my horrible start, when I had to kick it into a fifth gear, my body responded."

Her next challenge will be to raise the money to get her to London. She has set up a fund within the Wheelchair and Ambulatory Sports USA, a nonprofit organization that was set up to help support disabled athletes and sports in the U.S. "It's easy for someone to help," Katy said. "They simply go to wasusa.org and select my name from the Athlete Development Fund listing." The site accepts checks and PayPal. Every penny contributed goes to Katy's training and travel expenses, and contributions are 100% tax deductible.

"I'm so thankful for the support I've gotten from the community, and especially all the love and support I've received from the Hanger clinic and the Rancho family. I could not have done this without physical therapy from Rancho and prosthetics from Hanger."

Katy has come a very long way. She never ran a step until age 25, and in her first track meet, she did a face plant after running just three strides. Yet she never gave up. Her will to win served her well when she found herself so far behind at the start of last week's Paralympic finals. With her dreams fading before her eyes, she found something special inside herself and turned her biggest trial into triumph.

Now it's on to London, where she'll compete before 80,000 people on September 4 in a sold-out Olympic Stadium. She'll be carrying the hopes and dreams of countless Americans with and without disabilities to the track with her that day.

No one knows what will happen when the race starts. But one thing all her competitors already know is that America's Katy Sullivan possesses the heart of a true champion.

********** Published: July 05, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 12