It’s the second biggest multi-sport event in the world, after the Olympics. On Wednesday, the Paralympic Games kick off in London. Some 4,000 disabled athletes from around the world will compete in 21 events. Fourteen of the athletes are from southern California. One of them's a runner from Burbank.
Katy Sullivan sprints down the track at Burbank High School. This is one of her last workouts before she hops on a plane for London, where she’ll compete in the 100 meter dash. Her regular coach isn’t here today, so her husband Jay Cramer runs her drills.
“Am I sticking my butt out?" she asks him.
“I’ll watch this time. I love lookin' at your butt,” he says as they share a laugh.
Cramer, a stand up comedian, has a knack for making his wife laugh as she trains. Doesn't mean there's any less sweat.
When Sullivan’s workout calls for her to jog, I grab the chance to talk to her. She tells me she'll train for about ten days before opening ceremonies.
People often identify 32-year-old Sullivan as a double, above-the-knee amputee, but she was born without legs.
She’s an actor who has worked in TV, film, and theater and started running about six years ago, when she worked for a company that made running prosthetics. Her employer gave her a set, and her passion for sprinting took off. She says it’s tough to be a competitive runner.
“The energy expenditure that you are putting out when you run is so much greater than an able bodied person," Sullivan emphasizes.
When Sullivan’s ready to run, she removes her walking prosthetics and pops on her running shins with sculpted, carbon fiber feet. People call them “blades.” They even have shoelaces.
In between sprints, she sometimes hooks a long tube to her substitute legs and squeezes what looks like a rubber bulb.
"I am pulling vacuum," she says. "[That means] I am pulling the air out of my socket."
If too much air gets into the sockets of the prosthetics, it can cause them to stop working.
The charismatic, auburn-haired athlete draws attention from football players and fellow runners on the field at Burbank High as she walks on the asphalt, her feet sliding along the gravel. Most people are eager to learn how she runs on those “titanium Terminator legs,” as her husband describes them.
“I actually don’t run with knees. I circumduct, so I kind of swing my legs out to the side,” Sullivan explains.
Sullivan says competing in London will be particularly meaningful for her. Four years ago, she hurt her back right before the trials for the last Paralympics. She had to watch the trials as a spectator.
“And then I sat in the stands and I watched my 100 meters run past me with tears running down my face. I took some time off after that. I took about a year and half off," she recalls.
Jay Cramer, who was Sullivan’s boyfriend at the time, helped motivate her to get back to running. Cramer has had his share of challenges, too. Not long before he met Sullivan, he fell while rock climbing in Malibu and broke his neck.
“I shattered my C-5, which makes me a C-5 level quad," Cramer explains. "And for those of you who don’t know that means a quadriplegic means I’m lacking function in all four limbs.”
Cramer’s in a wheelchair. From alongside the track, he watches Sullivan train, the couple's black Labrador retriever 'Goliath' resting next to him.
Cramer says the blessing in that horrific accident six years ago was meeting Sullivan at a rehab center a few months after it happened.
He says if he had the choice of climbing that mountain again, without injury, “or you can fall right now, you’re going to break your neck, and you’re gonna maybe never walk again, but you will meet the love of your life, what will you do? And I say one hundred times out of one hundred, I would have it happen exactly the way that it happened.”
With that, husband and wife get back to her workout.
If Sullivan’s to win the 100 meter race, she’ll need to improve her start. At the trials in Indianapolis, she slipped coming out of the blocks and fell far behind. But the power in her sprint helped her come back and win the race.
She still had to wait until the next day to find out if she got one of the 19 slots reserved for women on the US Paralympic track team.
"I started crying," Sullivan recalls. "And it was an incredibly emotional day for me, because of the uncertainty, because of the obstacles I’ve had to overcome … it was a big victory."
As Sullivan sets out to accomplish her dream of a Paralympics win, she’ll look to the love of her life for continued support and perhaps a little comic relief.
“I’m a stand-up comedian in a wheelchair and I’m pretty sure there’s a joke in there somewhere,” Cramer says.
The couple shares another laugh before Sullivan gets back to her training. In London, she'll compete in the preliminaries on September 4 and hopefully advance to the next day's medal round.