Holly Koester believes in attaining goals. Saturday she will achieve her goal of competing in marathons in all 50 states by racing in the Southeast Road Runners Frank Maier Marathon.
What makes her feat even more impressive is that she'll be the first person, male or female, to accomplish this in a push-rim racing chair. It will be the 48-year-old Koester's 102nd marathon in all. While Koester was always athletic, she didn't start participating in marathons until she lost the use of her legs 18 years ago.
Koester, an Army captain at the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, had been in the U.S. Army for nine years when she was called on post for Desert Storm in 1990. As she drove to report for her post in a civilian vehicle with a history of tipping over she went on a temporary road and the car rolled. She injured her spinal chord and lost the use of her legs.
Koester says she was disappointed that she couldn't go to the Persian Gulf, not because she likes war, but because she had been training and she wanted to support her comrades. Her twin sister, a reserve in the National Guard, ended up getting deployed to Iraq instead.
Koester redirected her energy to rehabilitation, which ultimately led her to marathons.
"When they told me I would never walk again, I went into rehab and they told me to start with upper body strength," Koester said in a phone interview on the first day of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Omaha, Neb., where she went on to win three gold and two silver medals. Koester's therapists knew Holly was into sports so they introduced her to the National Veteran Wheelchair games, which are sponsored by the Paralyzed Veterans of America.
"I was a runner, and I played volleyball, basketball, and softball. I was on three teams when the accident happened" Koester said. Koester went to the wheelchair games and was inspired. "Watching the competitors ride around on the track, I thought it was really, really cool." Koester said it was then she decided she wanted to be a wheelchair athlete and began racing.
Koester switched to a racing chair, and she started cutting her times in half. In 1995, she competed in her first marathon in Columbus, Ohio, and she was hooked. She started off sticking close to home, only competing near her home in Walton Hills, Ohio, where she is a substitute teacher. Florida was the first marathon she did outside of Ohio about five years after her first race. She explained that finding marathons to compete in can be tricky for wheelchair athletes.
"Wheelchair racers have to pick wheelchair friendly races because they need pavement." She also likes races where all entrants start at the same line. She was then introduced to the 50 States Marathon Club, and completing marathons in all 50 states became her next goal.
When asked what the people close to her thought about her marathon races, she said her mom thought she was crazy. "Mom still thinks I'm crazy. She thinks driving 26 miles is a long way. My friends and family are really proud of me, but they still think I'm crazy."
Koester said her most memorable marathon was also her most difficult. She was all set to race in the Mount Rushmore marathon in South Dakota and scouted the downhill route into Rapid City before the race. The 26.2-mile race was then changed to an uphill one into Crazy Horse. Determined to finish the race, she crossed the finish line more than seven hours after the last runner and, according to an article in the Crazy Horse Memorial, the people that waited were moved to tears. "I was so happy to cross the finish line, and it was so cold and my heart was warmed to see people still waiting for me. I was totally blown away and didn't expect the reception, and it was family and people that didn't know me" Koester said.
It was undoubtedly this same persevering attitude that earned Koester the Spirit of the Games award at the Veteran Wheelchair Games in 1996. This award is given out annually to one true champion athlete who most demonstrates the qualities of athletic excellence, sportsmanship and strength of character. Koester was very flattered to be chosen. "The award is chosen by the other athletes, coaches and officials so it is quite an honor."
Her spirit and character strength landed her and 11 other veterans who excel as wheelchair athletes on the cover of a Cheerios box made for military families. She was shy about her fame, and about being considered a role model. "I just set a goal for myself and it was never about anything else."
When pushed for advice for others with similar challenges, Koester said she really wants people in wheelchairs to get out and participate in the community.
"They don't have to do marathons. They just have to get active in the community. I don't know how many people in the community have changed me." Koester also believes in educating people about wheelchairs and doesn't consider herself wheelchair bound. "I can get out of it. I can transfer into different chairs, I can accomplish a lot of things, and I can do a lot of things." She became a substitute teacher on the encouragement of someone she met at the games. She brings her dog, Bolt, to class and shows the kids how to drive her chair. She says education works because "after a while they don't even see the chair."
As for her next goal, Koester says it's about quality over quantity. Now that the pressures off, she intends to do all 50 states again, and will pick and choose the marathons she liked the most (Hawaii) to repeat. The Frank Maier Marathon begins at 7 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 2 at Savikko Park on Douglas.