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Fenwick alumna back better than ever in international paratriathlon

Nothing could stop Mary Kate Callahan from winning — or from smiling — during the ITU World Paratriathlon Chicago.

Not a substandard swim. Not a mechanical issue on her handcycle.

With dozens of family and friends looking on Saturday from the Buckingham Foundation plaza, Callahan was determined to cross the finish line in first place in the PT1 division.

That single-mindedness is what makes her a world-class athlete, said Callahan’s coach, Mark Sortino.

“She’s transitioned from being a teenage athlete to a mature teenage athlete,” said Sortino, who met Callahan in 2012 and is based in San Diego. “She’s very focused and very knowledgeable about competition.”

Callahan toured the course — a 750-meter swim in Monroe Harbor, and 20-kilometer bike ride and 5-kilometer run up and down Columbus Drive— in a time of 1 hour, 32.31 minutes. The victory kept Callahan, who is paralyzed from the waist down, the top-ranked American woman in the PT1 category and boosted her to No. 2 in the ITU’s Paratriathlon World Ranking behind Great Britain’s Jane Egan.

“I am definitely happy with the result and the time,” said Callahan, one of nearly 60 elite paratriathletes who competed in Chicago. “The swim was not as great as I normally do, and I had to make a stop in the wheel pit to fix something on my chain. I had a great race after that.”

Callahan trailed until the transition between the bike and run, and the LaGrange resident said having her own cheering section helped push her along, five days shy of her 19th birthday.

“That was a huge factor,” said Callahan, a 2013 graduate of Fenwick and incoming sophomore at Arizona. “It was the first time a ton of my family was able to see me race at an international level. I could hear people screaming the whole time, and I was able to feed off that energy.”

Back during her Fenwick days, she showed her determination while fighting the IHSA to add state competitions for disabled athletes. She got her way her senior year, in time to participate in her first state swim meet.

By then, Callahan had already been competing in triathlons since 2010. She said she was immediately addicted to the sport. Now, she has her sights set on making the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. It will be the first time the paratriathlon is contested at that level.

“Never in a million years did I think at that time I would be in this position,” she said. “That’s the goal.”

But Callahan isn’t getting ahead of herself. She has another ITU World Paratriathlon event July 19 in Magog, Canada. She said she’s hoping to qualify for the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in Edmonton, Canada on Aug. 29.

Callahan will spend the next couple of weeks training for the Magog race. She said she works out all over the Chicago area, including Chicago’s lakefront path, as well as the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. She also said she and Sortino will talk on the phone and communicate online to develop a game plan. Sortino was in Chicago on Saturday, but he went back to San Diego following the competition.

“We will take a look at [Saturday’s] race and look at ways to improve,” Callahan said. “He will be able to provide a lot of really good feedback in these next few weeks.”

As competitive and driven as Callahan is, Sortino said Callahan is someone who enjoys herself to the fullest.

“She’s friendly and gregarious and spends more time laughing than anything else,” Sortino said. “Those who know her know that when she’s focused, she’s hard to stop. But the competition doesn’t consume her completely. She’s good at moving on and thinking about the next day.”

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