Even at 14, Kathleen O’Kelly-Kennedy was doing everything she could to be a part of the Paralympics.

In the lead up to Sydney 2000, O’Kelly-Kennedy spent a year fundraising and chasing sponsors to ensure 12 young people with disability could attend the Games.

“I was part of a group of kids with missing bits, we were called the limb kids, the unofficial cheer squad for the Sydney Paralympic Games,” she told ABC Sport.

Watching the Australian women’s wheelchair basketball team, the Gliders, was a highlight.

“We made a habit out of pulling off our [prosthetic] legs and feet and arms and having them in the air so that all the Paralympians could see and then they usually came for us.”

O’Kelly-Kennedy’s enthusiastic waving of her prosthetic leg caught the attention of star player Liesl Tesch, who went and spoke to the group, including another future Australian representative, Bridie Kean.

“She said ‘one day you’re going to be Gliders’,” O’Kelly-Kennedy said.

A female wheelchair basketballer is playing and looks to pass the ball.

O’Kelly-Kennedy’s first sporting career was in wheelchair basketball.(Getty Images: Tony Marshall)

“And fast forward to 2008 we were her teammates at the Beijing Games and won a bronze medal with her, so it was a pretty cool full circle.

“Witnessing [sport] at that level made a huge impact on me and what I wanted to do.”

Second sporting career

As it turned out, Beijing would be O’Kelly-Kennedy’s only Paralympic appearance, although she continued her playing career, including a stint overseas. 

After her retirement, she returned home to Melbourne and was “lost” until her sporting career was unexpectedly revived when she volunteered to become a foster carer to three teenagers.

During that period, she was given time during the week to take breaks, and a friend suggested she try paddling as an outlet.

A female kayaker is competing in a kayak, with an intense look on her face.

O’Kelly-Kennedy made her first Australian Paracanoe team in 2022.(Supplied)

“It was meant to be for fun, and for that respite, but if you’ve been an elite athlete, it’s very hard not to be competitive about everything, whether you’re playing cards or whatever,” she said.

“So very quickly they dangled a little carrot and said, ‘You could be pretty good at this, you could see if you could go to another Paralympic Games.’

“It was too hard to say no to that.”

Qualification on the cards

The 37-year-old earned a scholarship with the Western Australian Institute of Sport and was selected for her first Australian Paracanoe team in 2022.

She’s now on the verge of qualifying for the Paris Paralympics, where she must finish in the top 10 in her event at the Paracanoe World Championships in Hungary, from May 9-11.

Three female paracanoe athletes stand next to each other smiling, with medals around their necks

After a strong showing at this year’s Australian Canoe Sprint Championships, O’Kelly-Kennedy has earned a place on the Australian team for the Paracanoe World Championships.(ABC Sport: Amanda Shalala)

“I think that it’s definitely possible because I did finish top 10 last year, but I know everyone’s gone away and worked so hard, just like I have,” she said.

O’Kelly-Kennedy is optimistic about her chances, but can also see the bigger picture.

“I’ve experienced every possible high and low from sport, and [going to Paris] would be an amazing high.

“But it also wouldn’t be the end of the world [if I don’t qualify] because I am in love with and will always be in love with the Paralympic Games and the Paralympic movement.”

And she’s willing to use her prosthetic leg again if needed, just like that 14-year-old girl in Sydney.

“If I don’t go [to Paris] I will be glued to the screen. I might even try and sell one of my old legs to get a ticket over there so I can be cheering from the stands.”

dan