KATIE Kelly has always tried to take the positive out of any situation – even the frightening reality of losing her sight.
So when Kelly, who has Usher syndrome, a rare genetic disorder characterised by the degeneration of eyesight and hearing, was deemed legally blind early this year, the 40-year-old ‘‘weekend warrior’’ inquired about competing at elite paratriathlete level.
Within six weeks of the eye test, the former Newcastle resident was racing as a PT5 (visually impaired) athlete in the world paratriathlon event on the Sunshine Coast in March. She won and backed up two weeks later to claim the national title in Brisbane.
Two months later, the now Canberra-based marketing guru was the envy of her former TriNova clubmates in Newcastle when triathlon legend Michellie Jones raced as her guide at the world paratriathlon race in Yokohama, Japan.
‘‘I’ve always looked at the positive side of things. It’s unfortunate I’m losing my sight, but this is such an amazing opportunity.’’– KATIE KELLY
The pair cruised to victory and are now in Italy preparing to race on Saturday as Kelly chases qualification for the world championships in Chicago in September.
She needs to make that event to reach her ultimate goal of competing for gold at next year’s Rio Paralympics. Kelly lived in Newcastle for two years while working for Hunter Sports Group and Athletics NSW and trained under Rod Cook and Ben Higginbottom with the TriNova club in preparation for events like the 2013 Port Macquarie Triathlon.
‘‘I’ve got so many great friends in Newcastle, and all those guys have been so supportive,’’ Kelly said.
‘‘I know in some ways I’m living their dreams, because they are like, ‘KK, I’d love to be doing that.’ To be in this elite space and to be travelling around the world.
‘‘I’ve always looked at the positive side of things. It’s unfortunate I’m losing my sight, but this is such an amazing opportunity.
‘‘That’s the thing about para sport. It gives you something to strive for, so I’m doing it for my team, all my triathlon buddies. I’m at the age where I’ve only got a small window of opportunity, so I’m going for it.’’
Kelly said the Newcastle club had made adjustments for her as she lost her peripheral vision and could not train at night.
‘‘The typical person has 170-degree vision. I have six degrees,’’ she said. ‘‘If you can imagine holding up a comb in front of you, that’s how narrow my vision is.
‘‘To all my triathlon buddies in Newcastle, they all knew me as ‘Katie that struggles with training at night’.
‘‘But they were all very supportive. They would pick me up for training at Mayfield Balance and the coaches would stay back in the mornings so I could ride in daylight. ‘‘I think they are just thrilled to see that someone like me gets this opportunity.’’
Kelly’s greatest thrill has been to race with American-based legend Jones.
The 45-year-old Australian is a two-time world champion, an Olympic silver medallist and an ironwoman world title winner.
‘‘For me being a weekend warrior-type sort of wannabe athlete, here I am sitting on the back of a tandem bike ... I sort of had those moments where I thought, ‘I can’t believe I’m staring at Michellie Jones’ backside’,’’ Kelly laughed. ‘‘She is someone that us triathletes know and admire. She’s just done it all.
‘‘To be in her company and see how she prepares herself, you can see why athletes like her have succeeded. It’s her attention to detail.’’
Kelly grew up in Casino and was an avid swimmer and runner from an early age. Her hearing loss was identified at age five, but the diagnosis of Usher syndrome did not arrive until she was in her early 20s.
Her hearing and sight will continue to weaken with age.
‘‘It’s a scary thing, and you don’t want to think about it,’’ she said. ‘‘I’m at the point now at night where I literally can’t see anything. I’m shaking my head trying to see something.
‘‘At this point, I don’t know. I’m hoping what I have left hangs around a while longer.
‘‘But I have started to take those steps. I’m using a cane at night and I’ve spoken to Guide Dogs Australia.’’
As well as fulfilling her own goal at Rio next year, Kelly hopes to help form a foundation to inspire teenagers and young adults overcome their own adversity.
‘‘Everyone gets different hurdles in life,’’ she said.
‘‘It’s all about inclusion, no matter what happens in your life, and that opportunity should be available to anyone.
‘‘I think the important thing is, is what TriNova did for me. They made adjustments so I could still participate.’’
Kelly is 12th on the PT5 rankings and needs to sit in the top 10 after races in Italy, Rio (August 1), Detriot (August 16) and Edmonton (September 5) to qualify for the world titles.