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ABC Online - Para-triathlete Katie Kelly retires

Tuesday, November 16, 2021
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Sport Access Foundation
Usher Syndrome
Sport Australia

The finish line photo from Tokyo suggested para-triathlete Katie Kelly was just hanging on.

Now it's official: the champion has retired at 45, after a short but memorable athletic career that included a Paralympic gold medal and two world championships.

"Once I crossed that finish line in Tokyo, I immediately thought it's over," she said. "That was it. Sixth place was where I would finish. It was such a huge relief."

The picture was different five years ago when she beat the field to become Australia's first para-triathlon gold medallist, lifting the tape with world champion guide Michellie Jones.

Despite her deteriorating eyesight and hearing, Kelly will continue her work with Sport Access Foundation (SAF), an organisation she founded in 2016 to help children with disabilities reach their sporting goals.

SAF has given $52,000 in grants to over 50 young athletes and sporting clubs; three recipients – Col Pearce, Kiera Stephens (swimming) and Jamieson Leeson (Boccia) – competed in Tokyo two months ago.

"I'm also excited by a number of projects planned with Sport Access Foundation as we start to accelerate our growth and advocacy towards 2032 Paralympics," she said.

The Katie Kelly story

Born in country Casino, Kelly was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome at 23. Usher Syndrome is a genetic condition that causes hearing loss, vision loss and can affect the part of the inner ear that helps maintain the body's balance.

Kelly did not take up high performance sport until she was 39, after asking Triathlon Australia for help to compete in the Hawaii Ironman.

"They were trying to recruit vision Impaired athletes for the Rio Games and told me about the para-triathlon," she remembered. "I didn't know it existed at that level."

Within a year she was a world champion.

A para-triathlete and her sighted guide stand on a beach in Brazil with their gold medals from the Paralympics.
Katie Kelly (right) and her guide Michellie Jones triumphed in Rio de Janeiro, taking home gold in the women's PT5 para-triathlon.(AAP / Sport the Library: Courtney Crow)

Then came Rio.

"It was the most extraordinary day," she said. "Racing at Copacabana beach, the bright blue skies, the statue of Christ the Redeemer in the background, my mum and dad and four siblings, along with close friends, all dressed in the green and gold, holding Rio beer cups and cheering me on."

The next five years tested Kelly's resolve.

Para-triathlete Katie Kelly on letting go and winning

Katie Kelly kneels on the side of an ocean pool and smiles.

Katie Kelly won Australia's first medal in para-triathlon in Rio and, despite her sight deteriorating more in the last five years, she's set on claiming another gold in Tokyo.

Read more

Tokyo 2020 was postponed for a year and Kelly started to feel the "grind of training".

She suffered a calf injury in June, which upset her preparation.

Her motivation was to follow through on promises made to her guide Briarna Silk, coaches and family.

"Let's keep going," she told them.

"It was certainly harder the second time around," Kelly said this week. "My body was feeling every one of those five years."

A para-triathlete smiles at the camera, standing next to her coach and her sighted guide.
Para-triathlon is a team effort — Katie Kelly (right), guide Briarna Silk (left), and coach Dan Atkins (centre).(Supplied: Triathlon Australia)

What now for the retired champion?

Kelly remains dedicated to advocate for people with disabilities in sport and workplaces.

"I was always mindful of the privileged place I was in and wanted to ensure our next generation of para-triathletes and para-athletes have the opportunity to thrive," she said.

"Over the years I've lobbied and reached out to the world triathlon president regarding the lack of prize-money for para-triathletes, and I know Triathlon Australia are working to bring this in for Australia."

She is an ambassador for Inclusion Alliance, which is a partnership between Sport Inclusion Australia, Deaf Sports Australia, and Blind Sports Australia.

Kelly is also a patron of the 2022 Australian Deaf Games alongside champion Deaflympics swimmer Cindy Lu Fitzpatrick.

Both women have been awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM).

Triathlon Australia thanked the two-time Paralympian for her ongoing contribution to sport.

"What a world-class athlete Katie is," chief executive Miles Stewart said. "But more than that, Katie Kelly is an incredible ambassador for the sport of triathlon."

The symptoms of Usher Syndrome will continue to diminish Kelly's senses.

She now requires a cane, and she cannot see at night.

But the champion does not expect her physical challenges will prevent her from continuing her important work.

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