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Q&A with Katie Kelly OAM PLY

We were thrilled to catch up recently with one of ASAPD’s Ambassadors, Katie Kelly OAM PLY, a two-time Paralympian, Founder of Sport Access Foundation and a leading advocate for diversity and inclusion.

Katie won Australia’s first Gold medal in Paratriathlon at the Rio 2016 Paralympics and her final race was at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics where she finished 6th in September 2021. Her remarkable career includes two Paratriathlon World Championships, and a lifelong commitment to promoting diversity that started as a 15 year old lobbying  for better coverage of women’s sport, and her role on the local council’s Recreation Access Committee in 1995 to improve access to Sport.

Passionate about creating equal opportunities, Katie founded the Sport Access Foundation, a registered charity that provides sporting grants for young Australians with disabilities. She has received more than 500 grant applications nationwide, over 7 years, with over $75,000 grants provided and made a significant impact.

Living with Usher Syndrome, which causes hearing and vision loss, Katie’s story epitomises positivity and resilience. Katie is also dedicated to advancing opportunities for women in sports and improving accessibility for all Australians with disabilities.

Welcome and thank you for joining us, Katie! We’d love for you to share with us your sporting journey and what inspired you to become a professional triathlete?

When I was younger, basketball was my passion. However, as my eyesight deteriorated, playing sports that required peripheral vision became increasingly challenging.  

In my early twenties, I transitioned to half marathons and marathons, before eventually venturing into triathlons where I completed my first Ironman at Port Macquarie in my mid-thirties. I loved competing in the sport and over time I would have my coach join me as my running guide. 

A few years on, riding solo became unsafe, and at 39 years old, my ophthalmologist advised me to stop riding altogether. Following that appointment, I contacted Triathlon Australia, to inquire about participating in the Hawaii Ironman as a triathlete with low vision. During that conversation, they asked if I would be interested in representing Australia in the Rio 2016 Paralympics. 18 months after that phone call, I found myself standing on a podium with Michellie Jones as my Guide having won the Gold medal. It was an incredible turnaround on many levels. The opportunity to represent Australia at the highest level in the inaugural Para-triathlon race at the Paralympics was such a great honour and moment in time that will always stay with me.  


Congratulations on your outstanding sporting achievements. What was one of your most memorable competition experiences and what did you learn from it?

Certainly it is without doubt winning the gold medal in Rio. It’s difficult to fully capture the significance of that moment in words. However, I do know and am very grateful for what that this win provided me with the privilege and a platform to further my advocacy for disability rights and inclusion.


As an advocate for inclusivity and equality in sports, do you think societal perceptions of disability have changed in recent years?

It has improved. During my early career, I was hesitant to disclose my disability as a young graduate. I am hopeful that nowadays people, especially the younger generation, feel more confident in openly discussing their disabilities without fear of discrimination or misconceptions. 

Are there any particular movements, initiatives, or factors such as increased accessibility in workplaces that you believe have had a significant impact on promoting inclusivity and equality for people with disabilities?

It’s clear to me that the organisations that are thinking more about their culture and leaders are challenging their unconscious bias and ableism to remove barriers for people with disability to be employed.  I strongly encourage all organisations to keep questioning how they can be more inclusive and to dive deeper to better understand discrimination types as disablism and ableism – and if they do this – they will have more success with creating authentic and inclusive workplaces.

We all also need to consider the power of words, that is the game changer. The words that people use can be a real barrier to people with disabilities and prevent their opportunities for education, employment and social opportunities. It is critical that organisations and communities such as sports clubs, think about improving their language in their environments, so people feel comfortable to be their true self and included. 

Resilience and mental strength are often challenges for aspiring athletes. Can you share strategies you’ve developed to overcome obstacles and maintain a positive mindset?

There are many layers to this, but I think in essence, it comes down to the enjoyment you have and that the team around you is a healthy and happy place to be, and then your own mindset and what story you tell yourself each day, each race and your willingness to change or shift that narrative or mindset.

What advice would you give to Australians with disabilities who are uncertain about where to begin their sporting journey?

My suggestion would be to reach out to your school’s sports teacher for guidance. They can provide valuable assistance in getting started. Additionally, I recommend contacting your local council, as they typically maintain a list of inclusive sports activities in the area. Another helpful resource is organisations like ASAPD and their members, who specialise in supporting individuals with disabilities in sports and can provide further assistance in initiating your sporting journey.

Brisbane 2032 will shine a light on high performance sport in Australia, what work needs to be done for disability sports ahead of the ‘big dance’?

I feel there are several areas that still require attention. Firstly, improving access to sports is crucial. There are still numerous barriers in place, especially due to the limited availability of individuals who can support people with disabilities in enjoying sports. This includes guides, handlers, assistants, carers, and support workers. Secondly, continued investments by the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) to assist councils and clubs in becoming more disability confident and inclusive. Lastly, there is a need to address equipment and facility accessibility. Many clubhouses, athletic tracks, and football ovals are not accessible to everyone, highlighting the importance of ongoing investments in our infrastructure to ensure inclusivity for all. If all these improvements can be put into action, it will most certainly be an exciting time for para sport in Australia, and one that I am looking forward to being a part of. 


What do you like to do in your down-time?

I quite often find myself tuning into the world of comedy, with Chelsea Handler and Celeste Barber being two absolute favourites. But when it comes to truly unwinding, I can’t go past ice baths followed by a sauna to chill.


Fast five: 

Top food or drink

  • Drink: Almond latte 
  • Lunch: Poke bowl
  • Fruit: Raspberries 
  • Vegetable: Broccoli 
  • Sweet: Lindt Dark Chocolate 


Top book or podcast

I’m currently listening to Dr Stacy Simms, International Exercise Physiologist and Nutrition Scientist. She was one of the first to dive into research to optimise training for female athletes. Her famous words ‘women are not little men’. 

The latest book from Dr Joe Dispenza, ‘Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself’ is also a great one to tap into if you’re feeling a little stuck.  


Top destination

  • Beach: Portugal’s Algarves which I travelled to during my European Kombie van adventure with friends – absolutely stunning. 
  • City: New York. I have been 3 times, once for the New York Marathon, another time when my brother worked there and I experienced a week of New Yorker lifestyle at its best, then the last time with my sister, and whilst we spent most of it retail shopping a highlight was to also experience a NY Yankees baseball match. 
  • For the people, food and wine: Italy. One trip was for my cousin’s wedding in Rimini. Wow, fun! 


Top person

When I think of sportspeople – 

  • Cathy Freeman. It’s almost impossible to describe her impact and legacy. 
  • Dani di Toro. 7x Paralympian and 2x Co-Captain of the Australian Paralympic Team. She’s a person who has had a huge impact on so many people. 
  • Chloe Dalton and Millie Boyle. Both are outstanding women who have such compassion and humility in their advocacy for not only women’s sport but also sport for people with disability. 


In terms of advocacy – 

  • Megan Davis, with the work, dedication and generosity to help Australia heal.


Top tip

Always consider your seat of privilege and who is ‘not seated at the table’.