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Monday, April 22, 2013

Disabled Athlete Mary Kate Callahan, Scores a Big Win for Disabled Competitors in Illinois

Sponsored by Post Grape-Nuts

A Chicago-area swimmer rose to the challenge to fight rules that discriminated against disabled athletes.

[photo: Mary Kate Callahan, of La Grange, IL, is enjoying her senior year at Fenwick High School in Oak Park. In November, Mary Kate was allowed to participate in state swimming competition after reaching a legal settlement with the Illinois High School Association to change competition rules and allow disabled athletes to enter. Credit Mary Compton]

Nothing bothers Mary Kate Callahan. Now an active teen, Callahan’s life changed when she was 5 months old. A virus attacked her spinal cord and left her paralyzed from the waist down.

“I didn’t let that stop me,” Callahan says.

Despite this challenge, she has accomplished more during the past few years than many do in a lifetime. Callahan visits schools and speaks to children about overcoming obstacles. She took third place in a triathlon. But her biggest success came in changing Illinois High School Association guidelines to allow disabled high school students to compete at state competition.

“You won’t find me driving a van with a lift. That’s not me. My parents always wanted me to be as independent as possible. They treated me just like my older brothers. I knew if I had the right mindset anything would be possible.”

Q. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve taken on?

A. When I joined Fenwick High School's swim team, I knew I wanted to be a full member of the team. My coaches were great, I felt part of the team. However, for most of my high school swimming career the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) refused to adopt standards to allow athletes with disabilities to compete at state championships. This was the first time in my life I felt like I was being pushed to the sidelines because of my disability.

So in May of 2012, the Illinois attorney general, Equip for Equality and I filed a lawsuit against the IHSA.

Q. What inspired you to take this challenge?

A. This was something that was close to my heart because I never want any child with a disability to feel different because they have a different kind of ability. Disabled athletes are just as much of an athlete as any other athlete out there. I think that’s the most misunderstood thought in society today. People need to realize we train just as hard. We have the same thrill for competition. I wanted to do this for the kids who were just starting high school so they won’t have to fight for this basic thing. Sports play such a big role in a student's high school experience by teaching athletes so many life lessons.

Q. Did you succeed?

A. I did succeed. This past November, seven girls dove into the water for the first time at the IHSA swimming state championships. Seven girls who were once told they couldn’t participate due to their physical disability. After our first race was over, I remember looking at the crowd on their feet cheering for us because we were now true athletes, not disabled athletes. I know history was made in Illinois that day. And that day changed so many lives. It was a small step to show the country disabled athletes are ATHLETES.

After Mary Kate was diagnosed with transverse myelitis in 1995, her parents started the Claddagh Foundation. The Claddagh Foundation was established to raise money for research to find a cure for paralysis. To this day, the Claddagh has raised more than $3 million dollars to help find a cure so one day people will be able to walk again. The Claddagh Foundation donates most of the money to the Miami Project to cure paralysis.

Related Post: Read about Mary Kate Callahan's journey on Oak Park Patch.

This article is posted throughout the Chicago-area Patch network.

About this column: We’re dedicating the months of April and May to telling the stories of people in the Chicago area who have overcome challenges, creating positive change in their own lives or in communities. Sponsored by Grape-Nuts.

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