A former cross-country skier in college, Kaitlyn McElroy has transformed herself into one of the best paddlers in the country.
A member of the Oklahoma City University varsity canoe/kayak team, McElroy also is pursuing her second bachelor's degree and wants to attend graduate school. That doesn't seem very remarkable except for the fact that McElroy didn't learn to read until the fourth grade.
“They (teachers) had not predicted a particularly bright future for me in academia or in the workforce,” McElroy said.
Now, the 27-year-old native of Maine is excelling both academically and athletically.
On Saturday, McElroy and her partner, Maggie Hogan, qualified to compete in next month's World Cup in Germany by dominating the K2 200-meter finals in the U.S. National Team Trials on the Oklahoma River.
McElroy also finished second Saturday in the K1 200-meter kayak race to Carrie Johnson, who qualified Friday for her third Olympic Games.
McElroy is having her best year on the water. She and Hogan won bronze in the K2 500-meter race at the Pan American games last year.
She and partner Jen Burke finished third in the K2 1,000 meters in the 2011 World Cup and ninth in the 2011 World Championships.
McElroy said she has improved tremendously since arriving in Oklahoma City to train in the Boathouse District under the watchful eye of Shaun Caven, former British National coach and director of canoe/kayak at the OKC High Performance Center.
McElroy was an NCAA cross-country skier at Bates College in Maine when a back injury five years ago ended her skiing career. She had missed practice because one of her classes ran late, so she went out in the dark to train by roller skiing, a cross-country training exercise where miniature skis are mounted on wheels.
McElroy was roller skiing down a hill when she hit a pothole, fracturing her back and breaking her back and ribs. The back injury still pains her today.
“My back got cranked a little bit further than it had been,” she said. “After that, it was just really difficult for me to ski. That ended my career.”
Still wanting to compete athletically, McElroy had raced marathon canoes as a teen, so she joined a kayaking club and later made a national team. At a training camp, she met Caven, who told her about the Boathouse District in Oklahoma City.
However, McElroy decided to go back home to Maine. But, one day when it started snowing while she was paddling and the rudder on her boat began to freeze, she started thinking about Oklahoma.
“I had to get out of my boat and warm the rudder up to steer my boat,” she said. “After about a week of this happening, I emailed Shaun, talked to him, and said I would be out there in a week.”
She moved to Oklahoma City, received a kayaking scholarship from OCU and returned to school, where she is pursuing her second undergraduate degree in behavioral studies. She wants to study neuroscience in graduate school.
McElroy has come a long way since grade school, where she was put in a special education program because of her learning difficulties. As a young girl, McElroy attended a public school in Maine but wasn't able to read.
A battery of tests left her teachers with a pessimistic view of her future.
“Since I wasn't able to do what I was supposed to do on that test, I was basically told I wasn't going to have a future,” she said. “The tests basically said I would be lucky if I graduate from high school.”
McElroy's parents, however, did not accept those findings and enrolled her in a private school.
“I still wasn't able to read, but I went to class and absorbed everything,” she said.
It was later determined that much of her reading difficulties were due to a vision problem.
“My eyes couldn't track very well,” she said. “I went to therapy to get my eyes to track. I also did a lot of occupational therapy for hand-eye coordination.”
By her fourth-grade year, McElroy began to read and started to catch up with the other students her age.
Because of her experience, McElroy has empathy for parents who have children with special needs. McElroy said she is proof that no one can predict how a child will turn out.
“I know I am very lucky,” she said. “My parents had the opportunity and means to put me in an alternative private school. I think it's really difficult for parents who don't have the opportunity to send their kids to an alternative education.
“To be told your kid doesn't have a future when they are only 6 or 7 years old, how do you know? People learn in different ways. I know that it makes it difficult for education, but it's something we need to be aware of.”