Kelly Allen, pictured at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, is the lone woman to represent Team USA at the 2017 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships.
Five years ago, just as Kelly Allen was hanging up her skis after enduring multiple injuries on the mountains, she received a Facebook message from American-Guatemalan slalom canoer Ben Kvanli, who competed at the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996.
“Are you the girl from the Extremity Games who was sweeping the podium in your kayak?” he asked, referring to the seven consecutive years Allen beat every other boy and girl who entered the competition.
Yes, she replied, that was her.
That three-letter word was all Kvanli wanted to hear.
Despite being told as a child she’d never be able to participate in any sports and have to wear a prosthetic leg — Allen was born without a left femur, patella and fibula, and without a fully developed hip socket — she had quickly become a rising para-paddler star.
Kvanli quickly convinced her to make the 15-hour drive from Colorado to Texas on her own, moving her life south to train full-time with him in hopes of excelling at that year’s national championships.
Within a month of training full-time, Allen won a national title and qualified for the 2012 ICF World Championships in Poznan, Poland, where she finished fourth.
Fast-forward five years, and the 25-year-old Allen is a Paralympian heading to her fourth world championships in the sport.
Allen will be the only woman from Team USA’s 2016 Paralympic delegation at this year’s ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships, which take place from August 23-27 in Racice, Czech Republic.
“This is the event that I’ve been training all year for, so it’s my big shebang,” Allen said. “It’s one of the most adaptable sports, and I think that’s why I love it so much. If you put me in a boat next to my able-bodied siblings — who can run a lot faster than me — I can leave them in my wake.”
In her Paralympic debut at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 — which was also the Paralympic debut for the sport — Allen advanced to the final and finished eighth overall in the women’s KL3 event, for athletes with the least severe impairments.
Immediately after leaving Rio, Allen wanted to do it all over again.
“No one really prepares you for life after the Games and how crazy everything is,” she said. “Right after we got back home from Rio, we immediately went and met the President. That was such a monumental moment in my life, to be able to shake the world leader’s hand and thank him for everything he’s done.”
Growing up in Michigan’s upper peninsula, “as northern as you can get,” Allen was an active kid, competing on able-bodied teams in tennis, skiing, basketball, baseball and soccer. At 14, her prosthetist told her about the Extremity Games — “the X-Games for people with disabilities,” she called them — and Allen immediately convinced her parents to take her to Florida to compete.
“That was such a groundbreaking point in my life, to compete against people who were just like me and to be actually looked at as a competitor rather than the poor disabled kid,” Allen said.
Allen competed in kayaking that first year, and while she fell in love with it immediately, she didn’t fare too well. So when she returned to Michigan, she signed up for kayak lessons, which ultimately led to seven consecutive Extremity Games titles.
But at that time, her first passion was still skiing, which prompted a 2010 move to Colorado to train full-time with the goal of making Team USA for Paralympic Games Sochi 2014.
Just after suffering some serious injuries on the mountain, though, is when Kvanli messaged her and she swapped her skis for paddles. She spent two years training as a resident athlete with Kvanli, who propelled her to the top of the sport in no time.
In Texas, Kvanli also ran a non-profit called Veterans Adventure Therapy, which provided kayak clinics to wounded military veterans as a way to assimilate to their new lives.
“That’s when I truly fell in love with the sport, when seeing the healing powers that this boat can have,” Allen said. “I watched the light come back into the eyes of men and women who thought their lives were over and that they couldn’t have adventures anymore. To put them in kayaks and send them down a 14-foot waterfall, that was a really amazing feeling.”
Inspired by what Kvanli had done, in 2014 she returned to Michigan to enroll in Northern Michigan University, a U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Site, where she began studying outdoor recreation, management and leadership with the goal of starting her own nonprofit one day. She had already received the Amy Poehler “Smart Girl” award for changing the world by being herself, but she was just getting started.
“My goal is to one day have my own nonprofit like Ben has, to introduce not only this sport, but every adaptive sport to these people,” she said. “Being from a small town, I didn’t know about adaptive sports until I was 14. If I would have had these connections and met these people when I was younger, I could have maybe gone to a Paralympic Games sooner.”
After one year at Northern Michigan, she transferred her training to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Site at the University of Central Oklahoma in Oklahoma City, where she could train with a group of Team USA able-bodied kayakers.
Starting with this week’s world championships, Allen is expected to be one of Team USA’s most notable medal hopefuls in women’s paracanoe leading up to the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.
But her dreams already extend beyond 2020.
“I think for anyone who dedicates their life to sport, their ultimate goal is to be holding that gold medal on top of the podium,” Allen said. “For sure that’s my goal, too, but one of my other goals is that I’d like to be able to share the sport with newcomers and be able to introduce it to the world.
“It changed my life in so many ways, and I would like it to affect more people that way.”
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.