Kaitlyn McElroy’s Olympic dream appeared to be just that in 2008 — a hazy goal, almost entirely unrealistic.
An NCAA cross-country skier at Bates College in Maine, she had fractured her back a year earlier in a devastating training accident, upending her career plans.
“I tried to ski for awhile, tried to make it work. Finally I just couldn’t do it,” she said.
But McElroy had a backup plan.
Switching from snow to water, she became a kayaker, resuscitating her Olympic dream in Oklahoma City’s Boathouse District.
Her dedication and drive, not to mention her natural gifts, have taken her all the way to Milan, Italy, for the ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships from Aug. 19-23. Races will be held in men’s canoe and kayak and women’s kayak as well as paracanoe, which makes its debut at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
Crews ranking in the top six to eight, depending on the event, will qualify the boat for their country for the Rio 2016 Olympic or Paralympic Games. There will be an opportunity to qualify additional Olympic and Paralympic quota spots next May.
In Milan, the odds are lined up against McElroy in her two specialties: the 200-meter individual sprint and 500-meter double, with teammate Maggie Hogan.
As usual, the Hungarian, German and New Zealand women are expected to parade to the podium.
But that means little to McElroy, now 30.
“I’m used to being an underdog,” she said.
The role fits her well. As a third grader, she still hadn’t learned to read. Following a series of tests, a school official told her parents to expect the worst.
“I was basically told I wasn’t going to have a future — that I’d be lucky to graduate from high school,” McElroy said.
Today McElroy has two bachelor degrees and plans on attending graduate school to study neuroscience.
Her kayaking career mirrors her academic success.
Despite a late start, she has collected a hull full of medals from competitions ranging from the Pan American Games to the U.S. championships to world cup events.
“Once you get to a certain level, everyone has the talent,” McElroy said. “It’s who has the mental talent. My favorite time in ski racing was when the weather was crazy because I knew I could handle the conditions.”
McElroy’s greatest success has come with Hogan, 36, formerly a college swimmer at University of California, Santa Barbara. The pair teamed up at the 2011 Pan Am Games, went their separate ways, reunited just weeks before 2012 Olympic qualifying and still nearly won a spot in the London Games.
“I was still really new to the sport,” McElroy said. “We missed by something like 0.7, so that was hard. But it was also encouraging.”
Hogan and McElroy seem to make ideal teammates.
Hogan, the bigger of the two, kneels in back, steering the vessel and providing long, powerful strokes. McElroy kneels in front, setting a furious pace with aggressive paddling.
“She’s a real good endurance athlete,” McElroy said. “I’m a sprinter. I can help get us off the line. She can pull us home.”
On the men’s side in Milan, Justin Staubach is the American to watch in the canoe sprints. London Olympian Tim Hornsby could contend for a medal in 200-meter kayak. Alana Nichols, a Paralympic gold medalist in both wheelchair basketball and alpine skiing, will compete in paracanoe.
Several top international paddlers are expected to compete in Milan, including Hungary’s Zoltan Kammerer, a three-time Olympic kayak champion, and Mark de Jonge of Canada, the defending 200-meter kayak world champion and world record holder.
London 2012 Olympic Games gold medalists Sebastian Brendel of Germany (200-meter canoe sprint) and Ed McKeever of Great Britain (200-meter kayak) are expected to compete.
On the women’s side, New Zealand’s Lisa Carrington has been a dominant figure since winning the world 200-meter kayak championship in 2011. She won the Olympic title in London.
Clay Latimer is a Denver-based writer who covered four Olympic Games, in addition to other sports, over 28 years with the Rocky Mountain News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.