Katie Kelly wins gold at Rio | Guide Dogs NSW/ACT

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12 September, 2016

Katie Kelly wins gold at Rio

Katie riding the tandem bike with Michellie.

Years of training and hard work pays off for paratriathlete

When Katie Kelly decided to run the 2005 New York Marathon with a girlfriend to mark their 30th birthdays she never dreamt that pulling on her running shoes for the iconic event would ignite a passion that would one day lead to a Paralympic gold medal.

After also mastering swimming and riding at an elite level, Katie, who has Usher Syndrome, a deaf blind condition, won gold medal in the paratriathlon in Rio.

Katie was joined at the starting line by her guide and Sydney Olympic Silver medallist, Michellie Jones, who she watched compete in the sport during the 1990s. "When I heard Michellie was going to be my guide I remember thinking - wow this is getting serious. I just couldn't believe it," Katie said. "We literally met four days before our first race in Yokohama last year and we just clicked."

Michellie guides Katie via a tether during the swim and run sections of the race and they use a tandem bike for the cycling leg.

The road to Rio saw Katie apply herself to training for many years competing in marathons, bike riding and maintaining her fitness through daily exercise.

"My primary motivation has always been the physical challenge, but also the places I travelled to presented great opportunities," she said. "I've done ocean swims across NSW and the famous Rottnest Island, the Sydney Oxfam 100km Trailwalker, running events across Australia as well as hikes in New Zealand."

When Katie moved to Newcastle in 2011 she joined triathlon training squad, Tri-Nova Multisport, and was surrounded by people training for Ironmans. It wasn't long before she made plans to join them and set a goal to do the Port Macquarie Ironman in May 2013.

"My running coach Ben Higginbottom guided me through the Ironman marathon run as it was getting dark by the time I started the run. It was the first time I needed a guide for a race as I'd always managed otherwise," Katie said.

Learning to use a long cane

Since birth, Katie has had moderate to severe hearing loss which has slowly worsened. "Thanks to hearing technology I can hear reasonably well and I've worn hearing aids since I was five years old," she said.

"My eye sight loss is probably more of a challenge as I have little control over this. It's been going all my life, but it wasn't diagnosed until I was 25 years old when it was confirmed that I had Usher Syndrome. When I heard I had Usher Syndrome with eye condition, Retintis Pigmontesa, it all made sense because little things like trying to park underground were always a bit tricky for me, and I was never a fan of hide and seek at night time at our family's barbecues in the country - I'd be tripping over and just couldn't navigate as well as the other kids."

At the end of 2014, Katie decided to contact Guide Dogs to help her learn how to use a long cane to safely move through different environments. "Guide Dogs from my first phone call have been so supportive and gentle in their advice as I've navigated through the loss of my vision and the various stages of this loss."

As the leading supplier of Guide Dogs and other services that enable people with impaired vision to get around their communities safely and independently, the organisation tailored a program to meet Katie's needs.

She currently gets by without using her cane often, but knows it is available and the techniques she needs to use when she does. "I'm still trying to get my head around having my cane with me, but it's not far off now until I will need it as I really struggle in busy places and dim light," Katie said.

"I prefer to be proactive and get on the front foot with vision loss rather than leave it until I am really struggling," she said

Coaches provide positive support

This positive attitude is what has got Katie to where she is today, although she does acknowledge that support from friends and coaches have helped shape her thinking.

"During the period I was training with the Tri-Nova Multisport squad in Newcastle, increasingly I couldn't train pre-dawn and would do more indoor sessions. I also adjusted my riding with the squad on long rides to always be at the back of the bunch. Then when competing I'd be quite slow on the bike as safety was always my priority," she said.

"It was my coaches Ben and Rod who made me realise that despite losing my vision, I could still pursue and do what I love doing. It's wonderful when people are giving back in ways they can. That's why I am so passionate about setting up my foundation, Sport Access. The focus will be to remove barriers for children with a disability to play sport."

"I have also learnt over the years there is always a way, when we lose something we can always gain so much more. I've read recently it's the 'work around effect' and it's about making the neuroplasticity of the brain shift and adjust."

Busy training schedule in lead-up to the Games

In the lead-up to the Paralympics, Katie trained almost every day, twice a day with a combination of swimming at the AIS or Civic Swimming Pool, riding on a wind trainer or on the open road and running on a treadmill at the AIS or Stromlo.

She said the key to triathlon was focusing on the leg you are doing before thinking about the next. "Importantly though, you need to enjoy the sport and the training as that is a big part of it. While training can be relentless, I still always finish each session and think - I enjoyed that. I always focus on how I will feel once I get the job done."

Before her race, Katie said she was looking forward to enjoying the moment and soaking up the atmosphere. "Every race I think - I might never do this race again. I mean that in the sense, it's a moment to seize and enjoy," she said.

Every day 28 Australians are diagnosed with uncorrectable vision loss, including nine who become blind. All Guide Dogs NSW/ACT services are provided at no cost to clients.