VA Palo Alto Health Care System
Katie Holloway: A Paralympian By Determination
Two-time winner of USA Volleyball’s Female Athlete of the Year and U.S. Paralympian Kathryn “Katie” Holloway was not your ordinary little girl. Yes, she wears a prosthetic leg, but being taller than most and coming from an athletically inclined family can really make a girl stand out.
A father who played football in college, a mother who played high school sports, and siblings who also played sports...it was no wonder that in middle school Holloway was already playing multiple sports herself: including basketball, volleyball and softball.
However, after several necessary surgeries took her in and out of school, Holloway noticed she was different. She was born without a fibula bone in her right leg, a condition also known as fibular hemi Melia. She had trouble getting around without aid when she first started walking and after exhausting all of the alternatives, the Holloways finally decided to go with the doctor’s recommendation to amputate.
“The reason I am able to travel the world and do these amazing things is because of my disability,” said Holloway in regards to how she has learned to view her disability.
Holloway continued playing sports in high school, especially excelling in basketball, which helped her get into college. After several meetings with college recruiters, she settled on California State University, Northridge. Although moving away from home was difficult, Holloway soon became close with the girls on her team.
It was during practice in 2006 when the U.S. Paralympic Women’s sitting volleyball team decided to train at her college. Her athletic trainer for basketball asked her if she had thought about playing sitting volleyball and if she wanted to meet the team.
“The team was all amputees and wore no prosthetics while sitting on the ground, I thought it was weird,” she said, admitting she used to wear knee high socks over her prosthetic in order to avoid drawing attention. The quick meeting really opened her eyes, as she had never seen anything like it.
It was not until after the basketball season was over that her coach called her into the office and told her the Paralympic team was interested in flying her to Oklahoma to join them for a training session. Weighing all her options, she figured why not take this opportunity.
As if being on a plane alone for the first time and rooming with a girl she has never met had not already put Holloway at odds, during her first training she reached her final stage of being comfortable with her disability.
“I had to just rip off the band aid,” she said, recalling the first time she took off her prosthetic in front of a crowd of people and sat down to play. After getting to know the stories of the other women on her team Holloway noted that “it [not wearing the prosthetic in public] became easier and changed my mindset completely.”
Fast forward past an arduous time of relearning volleyball from a seated perspective, she reached her first world championship in the Netherlands. In the end, she was hooked.
After her last year of school and basketball at CSU Northridge, she wanted more from her Paralympic experience.
In 2008, Holloway moved to the official training grounds of the Paralympic team in Oklahoma to train full time, preparing for her first Paralympic Games in Beijing. The team ended up taking the silver medal that summer.
Coming off the high of her first Paralympic experience, she also took advantage of the move by obtaining her master’s degree at Oklahoma State University, majoring in Leisure Studies with an emphasis in Therapeutic Recreation.
It was during her last year of graduate school, as she trained for the 2012 London Paralympics and worked with Department of Defense-funded adaptive sports workshops that a friend she worked with encouraged her to apply for a job with the VA.
When she finished the London games, where the team won their second silver medal and she was named the Best Spiker of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, she reached out about a position with the Recreation Therapy Service at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System.
“This was my first big girl job and I wanted to show my commitment,” Holloway joked. “So I took six months off from the Paralympic team to begin my career in Recreation Therapy.”
While things went well with the new job, she still needed to get back on the ball, literally. She explained there was a loss of confidence after being out so long, and not being able to train regularly with her team.
Luckily, as a Paralympian, she was able to find a strength coach at the Riekes Center. However, for a team sport like sitting volleyball, you need a group of people willing to help you train.
“I had to create my training structure from scratch. I love the community that we’ve built and it fuels me to stay motivated between official training sessions,” she said.
Holloway was determined to find help with her training and went to any sports organization she could to rally support. She recalls an all-gay volleyball group to which she recently introduced sitting volleyball, called “Balls of Fury.”
“That was one of the best experiences in the world!” Holloway recalls, as she explained the energy of the group and how excited they were to play.
She now has befriended many athletes from all over the Bay Area, helping her to start the NorCal Sitting Volleyball program, which was sponsored to play with the Northern California Volleyball Association at the U.S. Volleyball national competition in Orlando, Fl.
Holloway brings as much energy to her work as she transitioned from the IMPACT program to becoming the new employee wellness coordinator in 2015, where she has created many new programs with the new position including after-work basketball and volleyball teams for employees.
She hopes to bring year-round fitness opportunities after a successful Front Office Challenge this spring, where employee teams went up against the executive leadership for the most exercise minutes.
“I see and recognize the importance of exercise and nutrition to my overall well-being. I want to do that for others and let them know they are in control of their happiness.”
Watch Holloway this week as she participates in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.