Celebrated Australian paratriathlete, Katie Kelly OAM, who went from full time professional executive and recreational triathlete to Paralympic golden girl, has today officially called time on her stellar seven-year career.
Kelly, who will turn 46 in February, knew when she crossed the line in a gallant sixth place at the Paralympics in Tokyo just two months ago, that her remarkable career as an elite athlete had come to an end.
“Once I crossed that finish line in Tokyo… I immediately thought: it’s over. That was it. There were some tears and I had given all I had. 6th place was where I would finish,” said Kelly, who has spent the last two months planning the next chapter in her life before officially announcing her retirement.
“It was such a huge relief and then knowing that I was ready to move forward now to new things was a really happy place to be.”
Katie Kelly, born in the country town of Casino, was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome - resulting in vision and hearing loss - at age 23. She went on to become Australia’s first paratriathlon gold medallist in Rio in 2016 and World Champion in 2015 and 2017.
Kelly never had plans to be a high performance athlete, and it was when she lost her eyesight that she reached out to Triathlon Australia to inquire about qualifying for the Hawaii Ironman.
Kelly was thrust into the high performance arena at age 39.
“From 2015 I was doing what most 40+ women don’t do,” Kelly said.
“I had reached out to Triathlon Australia because I wanted to do the Hawaii Ironman. I wanted to know if I could qualify for an allocation through one of the five physically challenged places.
“They were trying to recruit Vision Impaired (PTVI) athletes for the Rio Games and told me about the paratriathlon. I didn’t know it existed at that level. I’m always open to new challenges so I thought perhaps I’ll give it a go!”
Kelly never looked back. Within 18 months, with Triathlon Australia’s first Olympic silver medallist from Sydney 2000 Michellie Jones guiding her through the pitfalls, she crossed the line in Rio for a remarkable gold medal – the first of the Rio Games and the first paratriathlon gold at its Games debut.
“It was the most extraordinary day; 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,” recalled Kelly.
“That day will stay with me forever, racing at Copacabana beach, the bright blue skies, the statue of Christ the Redeemer in the background….it was quite surreal.”
But the five years since Rio haven’t been easy for Kelly, whose body and mind were tested like never before.
Post-Tokyo she has had the chance to stop and reflect and while she is grateful for the whole journey, she admitted the five years (since Rio) completely drained her.
“It was certainly harder the second time around…it’s like someone who has a rookie season and has to back it up the next year but the season goes for 5 years,” said Kelly.
“I had to trial a few different guides and Briarna Silk would become my guide from 2019 which is a whole new dimension in itself. I also had several calf injuries; I had a stress fracture and my body was feeling every one of those five years.
“By the second half of 2020, when I sustained another injury, I was done; but I had to keep going and finish what I said I’d started.
“And I’m so glad I did…to do that for our team, coach Dan Atkins and Briarna.
“I was also mentally starting to fill the pinch. Since 2017 I had to forgo much of my professional work and put all my resources into being a full time professional triathlete. I trained with Dan’s squad, alongside Olympians Jaz Hedgeland and Matt Hauser.
“These guys are 23 and 24. I’m the same age as their mums! I would wonder how I would keep up, not only physically but also mentally, given the challenge of training at this level. For a long time I blocked out many other aspects of my life. The focus was on one race: Tokyo“
“Yes, it was intense. That’s training in high performance sport. You back up each day with a three-hour ride in the morning and in the afternoon, a 90 minute swim session.
Kelly feels Paratriathlon has given her so much, and an amazing platform to do what has been a lifelong commitment to advocacy for sport and disability.
“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. 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.”
Equally, Katie Kelly has given triathlon so much, giving paratriathlon a platform to progress.
Katie thanks her team, led by coach Dan Atkins and those who’ve been part of this chapter, for their support along the way. In particular, her Guides Laura Cooke, Laura Dennis, Michellie Jones, Jen Davis, Holly Grice and Briarna Silk.
While this amazing chapter as a high performance athlete finishes, Kelly is certainly looking forward to switching pace again, returning to corporate and professional life.
She’ll continue working in the inclusion and diversity space in various roles.
“I’ve started a new role with BlueScope in their global office within the social impact and inclusion team. 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,” said Kelly.
Katie founded Sport Access Foundation after Rio 2016, with the mission to provide more young Australians with a disability every opportunity to enjoy sport by providing annual grants. In five years they have received over 450 applications and awarded $52,000 in grants to over 50 young Aussies and sporting clubs. Three of the recipients debuted at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics: Col Pearce, Kiera Stephens (both in Swimming) and Jamieson Leeson (Boccia).
Kelly is also an Ambassador for Inclusion Alliance which is a partnership between Sport Inclusion Australia, Deaf Sports Australia, and Blind Sports Australia, and is a Member of Sport Australia’s Australian Sports Alliance for People with a Disability. Katie is also a co-patron of the 2022 Australian Deaf Games alongside noted Deaf Commonwealth Games (1982, 1986) and multi-gold medal winning Deaflympics swimmer Cindy Lu Fitzpatrick OAM.
Miles Stewart OAM OLY, Triathlon Australia CEO, thanks Katie Kelly for her immense contribution to the sport.
“15 wins and 17 podiums from 20 starts (World Triathlon), what a world-class athlete Katie is, but more than that, Katie Kelly is an incredible ambassador for the sport of triathlon.
“Katie had an amazing journey, and to go on to win Australia’s first triathlon Paralympic Gold medal and two World Champion titles, Katie’s journey is one of a kind.
“KK has been an unstoppable force, driving paratriathlon forward during her Australian representative career, and a constant source of excitement for our triathlon community. We wish her the best in this next chapter.”
Australian Representative #P12
Two-Time Paralympian – Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020
Rio 2016 Paralympic Gold Medallist – Australia's first ever Paratriathlon Gold Medallist at the Paralympic Games
Two-Time World Champion (2015 Chicago & 2017 Rotterdam)
ITU World Triathlon Grand Final Bronze Medallist
Four-Time World Triathlon Grand Final Representative
Four-Time Paratriathlon Oceania Champion
Three-Time Australian Paratriathlon Champion
Won Gold in her debut international event – 2015 Sunshine Coast ITU World Paratriathlon Event
Numerous ITU World Paratriathlon Series and ITU Paratriathlon World Cup Podiums
Awarded Triathlon Australia Paratriathlon Performance of the Year 2017 (with guide Michellie Jones)
Awarded Triathlon Australia Female Performance of the Year 2016 (with guide Michellie Jones)