Kelly Underkofler was born with what most people would consider a disability—she is missing the lower part of her left arm. But the 25-year-old St. Paul Highland Park High School graduate has never looked at it that way.
“Growing up, I never heard the word ‘disabled,’” she said. “It was never part of my vocabulary.”
Underkofler’s can-do attitude has taken her a long way. She competed in cross country skiing and biathlon events for the U.S. team at the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games on March 12-21 in Vancouver, British Columbia. She placed eighth in the 15 kilometer free event, 10th in the five kilometer classic event and 13th in the one kilometer spring classic. All of her events were standing events; there are also events for skiers who compete in a seated position.
International competition is nothing foreign to Under-kofler, who first competed fresh out of high school in the 2002 Paralympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. At the 2006 Paralympics in Torino, Italy, she had six top-10 finishes, including fourth place in the long-distance biathlon.
Underkofler has competed across the globe. Her career highlights include a number three world ranking in the biathlon during the 2006-07 seasons, and a second-place finish in the 12.5K biathlon at the World Cup in Mount Washington, British Columbia, in 2007.
Still, the Torino games stand out as one of Underkofler’s most memorable athletic experiences. She recalled competing on one particularly sparkling winter day—a snapshot in time that will live with her forever.
“I had my first biathlon race there and ended up with a fourth-place finish,” she said. “It was a beautiful day. I shot well and skied really well. Everything came together for me.”
This winter, Underkofler has been training in New York and Utah in preparation for the Paralympic Winter Games, which featured international competition in Alpine and Nordic skiing, the biathlon, wheelchair curling and sled hockey.
Underkofler said she has had a good training camp, with a strong focus on the biathlon. She has taken advantage of world-class coaching and has worked out with the U.S. women’s biathlon team.
“Having the opportunity to train with the able-bodied women—it gives me something to push myself toward,” she said.
Underkofler has been working especially hard on shooting. For biathlon competitors— able-bodied or otherwise—one of the biggest challenges is to keep their aim steady despite the heavy breathing and elevated heart rate from all the skiing.
Shooting is “definitely tough,” Underkofler said, but she has a knack for it and has been working hard to improve her technique.
Underkofler has been cross country skiing since she was 4 years old. She learned the sport on the Highland Park Golf Course with her father, Kevin, a former competitive skier, and took to it naturally. She raced some when she was younger, but tasted her first real competition in high school.
Underkofler lettered in gymnastics and cross country skiing at Highland, according to athletic director John Heller. “She’s bright, articulate, just a wonderful young woman,” he said. “She assisted with our cross country team (in 2007-08) and did a great job. I have nothing but great things to say about her. She’s a very dedicated athlete and a very focused individual. We wish her well.”
Although she skied well for the Scots, Underkofler never thought much about going beyond high school competition until her sophomore year, when she went to Shriners Hospital in Minneapolis to be fitted for a high-tech prosthetic device.
The prosthetic didn’t work out, but it was at Shriners Hospital that she learned about the Paralympics, and was encouraged to try out for the national team. She said it was the first time she thought, “This is something I could do on another level.”
Her ability and confidence grew, and by 2002, at age 17, she became a member of the national Paralympic team. She skied through college and graduated from St. Olaf in 2005. After college, she started training full time.
Between competing and training, she continues to maintain a busy schedule. It involves a lot of time away from home, “which is hard,” she said, “but this is my job, and it’s a really good job. I don’t want to complain.”
Earlier this year, Underk-ofler added something else to her hectic schedule—an appearance on the reality TV show “The Biggest Loser.” While she was training in Colorado, the show’s producers inquired about having an athlete on the show as a guest instructor for the contestants.
Underkofler got wind of the request. She happened to be a fan of the show, so she volunteered with a handful of Olympic athletes to put the contestants through their paces.
“It was fun and great exposure to have Paralympic athletes on television along with Olympic athletes,” she said. “We don’t get that kind of coverage often.”
The experience of being a Paralympic athlete has been a struggle at times in at least one respect—it has forced someone who has never harbored any thoughts of being disabled to identify herself in a different way. But the good outweighs the bad by a long shot, according to Underkofler.
“I would never have said I was a disabled kid,” she said. “Identifying myself in a different way has been a challenge. But it’s also great, because throughout my career I’ve been given a platform to talk about these things—what does it mean to be born with one hand?
“Technically, that makes me disabled,” she said, “but it’s not how I live my life”
–This article originally appeared in the Villager, a St. Paul neighborhood newspaper.