Holly Koester Hero Story

PVA Member Holly KoesterExcuses, for everyone and about everything, seem to always be in abundance, as they can be swallowed from the air as easily as lint is plucked from a pocket.

What, for example, precludes that afternoon jog? Likely, it is the cold and dreariness of the world outside—naturally, the gym is a hassle to get to—or it is the fact that we are busy, tired, hurt, or sick, or simply not “built like a runner.”

On a luckless day in 1990, Holly Koester could very legitimately say she wasn’t “built like a runner.” She had just injured her spinal cord and lost the use of her legs, the two things usually (and incorrectly) considered requisites for athleticism. Koester was an Army captain who had already served nine years. Stationed at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, she was called on post for Desert Storm. As she was driving to report to her new position, her car hit a temporary road and rolled over.

Holly and her twin sister, Joy, had joined the Army through a college ROTC program in 1981. Though Joy’s military career continued (she is now a colonel in the Army Reserve), Holly’s had reached an unanticipated end.

Holly’s athletic career, however, was just starting. Just a year later Holly drew inspiration from the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, the largest annual wheelchair sports event in the world, copresented by Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Department of Veterans of Affairs. At the Games she saw people of all physical shapes and conditions—all who required the use of a wheelchair—not only playing, but competing, in sports with skill and exuberance.

That started a legend. Since, Holly has competed in dozens of National Veterans Wheelchair Games and other adaptive sports competitions, amassing an impressive collection of medals, and just several months ago, she become the first person in a wheelchair to compete in marathons in all 50 states. 

Holly focuses on helping others, too. She loves her job as a substitute teacher in Walton Hills, Ohio, and continues to serve other Paralyzed Veterans’ members as the sports director for the Buckeye Chapter.

“That was my main goal when I was in the Army—to teach my country—and that’s why I wanted to become a teacher, to influence kid’s lives,” Koester says.

Holly has spoken at conferences and at middle schools, to local reporters and national ones. She was even featured on the cover of a Cheerios box along with 11 other gold medalists from the 2007 National Veterans Wheelchair Games, the only female athlete so honored.

Koester is an inspiration to others, and she says the people she inspires inspire her right back. “It’s the small things: you know when people come up and say ‘you made my day.’ Sometimes you don’t realize that you’re inspiring other people.

“One time I had pulled up at a gas station to fill up and there was a lady parked next to me. She had a little boy in the backseat—in a wheelchair—and she said to him, ‘I want you to watch this lady because you’ll be able to do all that!’

“I ended up showing him the controls and driving around for him,” she says, citing the whole experience as “kind of neat, like a pat on the back.”

For Koester, “all that” is, indeed, a lot. “I belong to so many clubs, it’s unreal. I belong to a quilting club and two dog clubs. I also teach dog obedience classes.”

Besides those commitments, Koester enjoys outings with friends, trains her own service dogs and claims to spend “too much time on Facebook and games.”

And then there are hours of training. “I’m taking some time out each week to get ready for the Wheelchair Games this June.”

How can she keep up such a pace? “I have busy weeks, but I do get enough sleep,” she chuckles.

Talking about her races, Koester makes a statement that seems to sum up her life view: “Even though I’m a competitive person, I’m just out there for the fun of it.”

Story by Katrina Ilich 


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