Athlete Kelly Butler opens up about her personal journey, the water skiing accident that resulted in quadriplegia, and her life after attending a Dare2tri camp.
I am a fun-loving, hard-working, disciplined adventure-seeker from Texas. I love being active outdoors more than just about anything. Triathlon is my favorite sport because of the challenge of performing in three different sports and because the triathlon community is made up of some of the most supportive, positive, and welcoming people. I have done running road races, long-distance cycling events, obstacle course races, as well as triathlons both prior to and after my disability.
My disability came in two stages. In 2018, after 10 years of staying active with running and doing triathlons while living with multiple sclerosis, my disease progressed significantly and resulted in full-time wheelchair-use. It was then that I first began participating in adaptive sports.
Then in 2020, while adaptive water skiing, I sustained a traumatic cervical spinal cord injury resulting in quadriplegia. I thought my active days were over because initially I had no movement from the neck down. Even as I regained some function, I struggled with basic self-care tasks due to limited hand function and significant arm and core weakness.
I had no hobbies and nearly all my interactions with others were related to caregiving, I only left my home to go to medical appointments. I certainly didn’t identify as an athlete. My quality of life felt very low, and I became very depressed and suicidal.
It was around this time that I saw on social media that Dare2tri was hosting paratriathlon camps again in 2021. Even though I hadn’t yet learned to swim with my SCI and I could barely propel my wheelchair by myself, I remembered how much I loved triathlon and was desperate to reconnect with the athlete part of myself, so I applied to attend Learn2Tri Camp. I discovered that just having camp on my calendar and the goal to get stronger for it provided focus, hope, and a glimpse of myself as an athlete again.
At camp, I made so many connections and felt so supported while I challenged myself and rediscovered my passion for triathlon. Overnight, I went from feeling insecure and ambivalent about life to feeling strong, confident, and excited about the future.
In fact, my experiences with paratriathlon have given me the confidence and motivation to share the sport with others. Prior to camp, I didn’t feel like I had anything to offer anyone. I am currently mentoring a friend as she gets started in the sport as a wheelchair athlete, have been a point of contact for a couple of others interested in learning more about paratriathlon, and am volunteering as a support trainer at my gym. Without the positive experiences I had at Learn2Tri and the relationships developed at camp, I do not believe I would have the passion, confidence, or energy to do these things nor would I be enthusiastically looking forward to my future. Paratriathlon and Dare2tri’s support literally saved my life.
Day two of the camp in particular was a life-changing pivotal experience for me. Having sustained my SCI in a lake I had developed significant anxiety and fear even thinking about being near open water; the closest I had been to being in open water since my accident was sitting on a dock in my wheelchair and being in a large boat a couple of times, even though I never got wet in these experiences I had flashbacks and full-blown panic attacks. I couldn’t even imagine myself swimming in open water. I basically had PTSD about open water.
When I first arrived at camp, I noticed an open water swim session on the schedule for the second day of camp. Just reading the words on paper made my heart race and I began hyperventilating. I had trouble sleeping the night before the session and secretly prayed for bad weather. On the morning of the session, I was highly anxious and even called a friend in a panic while sitting at the site staring at the lake. But I was able to refocus on how much support I had already received on day one of camp, my desire to overcome the fear and ask for additional support.
The moment that I was lowered into the water, I burst into uncontrollable tears and started hyperventilating. I was seeing and feeling flashbacks of my accident. I thought I might throw up.
Two volunteers, Dean and Deb, sat with me talking me through my panic attack and helped me regain composure and control of my breathing. It was a slow process but eventually I entered a little deeper in the water while remaining calm. Then, I even swam a little bit. Because of the support, encouragement, and space to process through the experience, I ended the session feeling like I had slain a dragon.
The following morning at the Tri It Triathlon I was able to swim a couple of hundred yards with a few stops to regain my composure. I am forever grateful that Dare2tri provided an opportunity for me to challenge my open water fears safely and with so much support.
I left camp a different person—happy, hopeful, confident, and excited to keep learning and developing my skills and fitness. I saw myself as an athlete again and felt so joyful with a desire to make plans for the future. I’ve not had suicidal thoughts and my depression is nearly resolved.
It’s not just me that notices the change either. When I saw my friends for the first time a few days after camp they commented on my whole energy, demeanor, posture, and face looking brighter before I even said anything about how I felt different. A good friend said, “There she is, there’s the real Kelly. You’re back.” It made us both cry. I’ve had the confidence to seek out races, coaching, and opportunities to continue growing.