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Mother, Veteran and Paralympian Kelly Elmlinger Loves the Second Chance to Represent Her Country

by Kelly O'Mara

In her sophomore year of college, Kelly Elmlinger decided to enlist in the Army. She’d always played sports and been active, her grandfather had been in the military and then she saw her cousin do it, and she knew it felt right. “It was where my heart was,” she said.

After deploying three times and earning a nursing degree, she moved to San Antonio to work with wounded warriors at the Army medical center — and she ended up needing all the skills she had learned to get through her own diagnosis.

When a pain and tumor in her leg slowly got worse, to the point that she couldn’t run, the doctors found she had a rare form of soft tissue cancer, synovial sarcoma. What followed was multiple surgeries and procedures, complications, and infections. “For five years, I spent a lot of time being a patient,” she said. Until, finally, she decided to have the leg amputated.

The hardest part was “not wanting to go backwards,” she said. She wanted to be done with hospitals and rehab, and back out being active. She knew that “as soon as I can run again, I want to do a race right away.”

Because she’d been working with vets rehabbing, she knew there were sports programs for them to get involved in and had talked to USA Triathlon a few times. She was ready to do her first race right away — on an all-purpose prosthetic in a temporary socket (“my prosthetist almost lost his mind”). And she won.

Another paratriathlete retiring left an opening on the U.S. team for the World Championship just a few months later and she seized that chance, too. “If you give me an opportunity, I’m going to say yes,” she said.

At the Tokyo Paralympics, her category was combined with the PTS5 — which meant she had to race against athletes with more mild impairments (a challenge she tackled enthusiastically) — but this year she’s back on top with a win in her regular PTS4 category at the World Championship this past fall. And now she’s looking forward to Paris, where her daughter, Jayden, will also celebrate her 16th birthday just a few days after the race.

“That is a gift in so many ways,” Elmlinger said. “She was very young when I was diagnosed with my medical issues and I'm very excited for her to be able to attend the Games this year for many reasons. Just as many things in my life changed (after my diagnosis), it did for her too and she has managed it very well. I'm proud of how well we have overcome all the adversity.”

After 20 years in the Army, Elmlinger is a now full-time paratriathlete and loving the second chance to represent her country.

She also loves everything about the team — even if sometimes they have too much fun together. “For an individual sport, we’ve very team-oriented,” she said, cheering each other on, training together, going to dinner together.

“I feel like I belong here,” she said.