Kelly Elmlinger competing at the ITU Paratriathlon World Cup in August 2019 in Tokyo, Japan.
Kelly Elmlinger spent plenty of time treating combat veterans and cancer patients during her nearly 12 years as a medic in the U.S. Army.
Capt. Elmlinger did three deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq following the Sept. 11 attacks, and when she returned home to the United States, she pushed to get transferred to San Antonio. She wanted to work as a nurse with wounded warriors.
Once in Texas, Elmlinger got to know her patients and spoke to some of them about their decisions to get an injured limb amputated. She didn’t expect, however, to someday be faced with a similar dilemma about what to do with her left leg.
“I wanted to be stationed down here so bad, and I thought it was to take care of people,” Elmlinger said. “And it kind of came full circle like, ‘Hey, this is where I’m supposed to be.’”
Elmlinger had her left leg amputated below the knee in August of 2016 after years of getting MRIs and doctors still not knowing what the problem was. It turned out she had synovial sarcoma, a rare form of soft tissue cancer.
Three weeks after getting fitted with an all-purpose prosthetic leg, in 2017, Elmlinger competed in her first paratriathlon in Austin, Texas — coincidentally on Memorial Day. Since then, the retired Army veteran has emerged as a promising paratriathlete who hopes to qualify for next summer’s Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“I grew up in a very blue-collar family in a blue-collar area of Ohio where you just work. You put in the work,” said Elmlinger, who was raised in Attica, Ohio. “So I’m used to working, and I really kind of figured I’m going to have to put in the work (with paratriathlon). But that was OK with me. It’s like, ‘Hey, you have to start somewhere.’”
Elmlinger, now 40 and the mother of 10-year-old daughter Jayden, has turned her focus to training for paratriathlons since retiring from the Army after 20 years of service. She has somewhat surprised herself by enjoying success in only her second season as an elite paratriathlete.
Elmlinger earned the gold medal at the 2019 Tokyo ITU Paratriathlon World Cup – the test event for the Paralympic Games course, and she added a silver medal at the world championships. Rather than resting this late in the season, she traveled to Turkey this week to compete in the Alanya ITU Paratriathlon World Cup on Sunday.
Elmlinger competes in the PTS4 class alongside other paratriathletes with “moderate impairments,” as defined by the International Triathlon Union, that can include limb deficiency, impaired muscle power or range of movement, or other comparable activity limitations.
Since PTS4 isn’t on the Paralympic program, she will aim for a spot on the 2020 U.S. Paralympic Team in PTS5, meaning she has her work cut out for her as she will now go up against athletes with “mild impairments” as well.
“I look at racing as my job,” she said, “and that’s how serious I take it.”
Elmlinger grew up competing in track and field and running cross-country like her three younger siblings. However, she considered herself more of a basketball player than a runner — at least until she enlisted in the Army.
Elmlinger attended Tiffin University in Ohio on a basketball and cross-country scholarship, and she joined the track and field team as a freshman because it came with additional financial assistance. However, she said she hated college and running felt too much like a job to her.
Even though Elmlinger doesn’t come from a military family, she was desperate to join the Army and enlisted during her sophomore year of college.
“I dropped all my classes, I went to the recruiter, and within three weeks of telling the recruiter I want to go, I was in the military,” Elmlinger said.
While in the Army, Elmlinger start feeling excruciating pain in her left leg. She said it felt worse than childbirth. A specialist thought she could have nerve problems in her leg.
“Everyone else was like, ‘Hey, you can run.’ I jumped out of airplanes. It didn’t bother me,” Elmlinger said. “I was pregnant with my daughter. There was nothing that made it better or worse, and I had no other symptoms. People were just like, ‘I don’t know. It’s a weird thing.’”
Elmlinger was finally diagnosed with cancer in spring of 2013. She went through chemotherapy and admitted she was “knocking on death’s door a couple of times.” Still, she tried to save her leg and avoid amputation.
“My life was miserable,” Elmlinger said. “I was dragging around a leg that was literally dead weight, and physically, mentally, emotionally, I mean it wore on me hard.”
Everything changed once Elmlinger decided to have a portion of her leg amputated three years ago. She was able to return to running with the help of a prosthetic leg. She then won the 2018 USA Paratriathlon National Championships in only her second triathlon since becoming an amputee.
She found a new quality of life that she didn’t have before the amputation.
“One of the (factors in my decision) was, hey, once I cut this leg off, I’m going to run,” Elmlinger said, “and I’m going to get into triathlons.”
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.