WASHINGTON – Army Capt. Kelly Elmlinger, a fierce competitor, mother and cancer survivor, will be competing in all of the women’s wheelchair track events and all of the women’s classified swimming events at this year’s DoD Warrior Games held at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, June 19 through June 28.
Elmlinger, a disabled nurse, said there weren’t any female wheelchair track racers at last year’s Warrior Games, so she raced against the men and earned silver medals in the 100-meter, 200-meter, 400-meter and 1,500 meter races. She also earned gold medals in the women’s classified 50-meter freestyle, 50-meter backstroke and 100-freestyle.
“I just wanted to compete; I didn’t care about the medals. It went much deeper than that. It was about representing all of the support and help of the people who got me to that point,” Elmlinger said. “These competitions are more about the celebrations of everyone at their own point in life and celebrating the goals and the gains that you’ve made to get to that point.”
At the Invictus Games in London, Kelly earned gold medals in the 100-meter and 400-meter women’s wheelchair races. She also earned a gold medal in the women’s shot put and a silver medal in discus. For cycling, she earned a gold medal for the time trial and a silver medal for the road race. For swimming, she earned a silver medal for the 50-meter backstroke and took fourth place in the 50-meter free stroke and 100-meter free stroke.
Elmlinger’s parents said they are very excited to attend the Invictus Games, but that they were not surprised by their daughter’s accomplishments at both the Invictus and Warrior Games.
“When I first saw her competing, it took my breath away because I had seen her compete many times, but never in that capacity. But I’m very proud of her and all of the wounded warriors. It’s wonderful that they all get out there and compete,” Berti Elmlinger said of her daughter’s competitive spirit.
Growing up in Attica, Ohio, Elmlinger and her three siblings all went to state competitions for track and field and cross-country and played basketball in high school. She said she joined the Army on Veterans Day, her favorite holiday, after talking to her cousins who had served and seeing footage on Operation Desert Storm.
She said she wanted hands-on experience and became a medic with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. She served as a medic during two deployments to Iraq and a deployment to Afghanistan, and then decided to become a nurse so she could work with wounded warriors, at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
“I enjoyed it, and they probably provided me more than I provided them in terms of encouragement and inspiration,” Elmlinger said. “I’ve met a lot of good friends through taking care of them as they were getting ready for their prosthetics. I enjoyed taking care of them.”
Elmlinger ran the Army 10-Miler, earned her jump wings, and ran a marathon on Veterans Day in under four hours, but she had just missed the qualifying time for the Boston Marathon and was training for a triathlon when she had a nagging pain in her leg looked at.
In March 2013, Elmlinger was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a rare soft-tissue tumor found in her lower leg, next to her tibia. She worked with her orthopedic oncologist on limb salvage and had nine surgeries. She was treated on the same hospital floor she had worked on before.
Elmlinger said she first thought of her daughter, Jayden, 6, and then of her career.
“The only thing I cared about after the doctor told me I had cancer was just make me a mom,” Elmlinger said, her voice quivering. “I didn’t care what they did to my leg. I didn’t care what I had to go through. Jayden is my driving inspiration. She’s why I get up every morning, why I challenge myself, why I continue to set goals and why I want to continue to be a better person. She’s athletic and a bit of a challenge; I feel like I’m raising myself sometimes, but I love her.”
Elmlinger said she wouldn’t have made it through those hard times without the support of her family and friends.
“Everybody in my family took turns coming down here from Ohio to stay with me and help me out and get me back and forth to appointments and I had a lot of support from co-workers and close friends. I’ve been very blessed to have some great individuals in my life to help me out,” she said.
Elmlinger particularly credits former BAMC registered nurse Army 1st Lt. Todd Yost with helping her out.
“Todd was my supervisor, and he was a great mentor, co-worker and became one of my best friends,” Elmlinger said. “I don’t know why we went through the experiences we did, but if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be the officer I am today. I owe him my life.”
Yost said he was just being a good friend.
“I was in Afghanistan when she sent me an email saying, ‘Hey, I’m in the hospital. They’ve done some tests. They found something in my leg.’ I called her to see how she was doing and to let her know I was thinking about her,” he said. “It was very difficult news to take because since the first day I met her, she’s always been a go-getter, always motivated, trying to do the best job she can and always competitive, trying to be the best.”
Elmlinger’s father, Mark Elmlinger, said he and his wife were out shopping with Jayden in Ohio when they got the news.
“It was like getting hit in the stomach,” he said. “But she’s a fighter, like my mother, who’s 96 years old. She just keeps going. And it was an honor and privilege to take care of Jayden while she was recovering.”
Medically retired Sgt. Aaron Stewart, a flight operations sergeant who served in the Army for eight years, is Elmlinger’s best friend, roommate, and former Warrior Games teammate. Elmlinger was there for him, Stewart said, when he was recovering from his own injury. Stewart has a back and shoulder injury and post-traumatic stress. Stewart competed last year in the Warrior Games and Invictus Games.
“We met at the Army Trials, and she’s intimidating,” Stewart said of Elmlinger. “But the more you get to know her, the tough exterior kind of goes away, and she’s just the nicest person to be around. When I got out of the military, I was homeless and living in my car in parking garages and hotel parking lots. Being the kind person she is, she offered up her home to me. I had no place to go.
“And it’s not just having a place to live,” he continued. “I know any time, day or night, I can go to her with any of my problems. She’ll listen to me. She provides so much support. I really can never repay her for the impact she’s had on my life.”
Ever the athlete, Elmlinger fought through her recovery as quickly as she could and impressed her supervisors in doing so.
“Resiliency is all about your ability to bounce back, and Kelly has done nothing but bounce back from all the adversities she’s been through from her surgeries to her diagnosis, having to deal with the treatments that she had to go through and still being a mom at the same. She never missed a beat,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Nancy Johnson, surgical orthopedic ward officer in charge, San Antonio Military Medical Center. “She’s a great educator, and she has goals beyond a lot of us without handicaps. Kelly is one of those people who we all strive to emulate and even I, who’s been in the Air Force for 20 years -- I know that Kelly has had such a huge impact on my life and my career.”
“Kelly represents resiliency at every level, overcoming not only her set of challenges or adversities that brought her here, but much more than that,” said Col. Eric Edwards, chief of staff of U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School, Fort Sam Houston, Texas. “We know that she’s an athlete but she’s also a devoted mother and colleague. She’s also a very humble individual and became a captain when promotion percentages were among the worst in the Army Nurse Corps at 61 percent this year.”
Edwards said he’s “very proud” of Elmlinger’s achievements in spite of adversity.
“She really is what resilience is all about,” said Army Staff Sgt. Philip Seale, Warrior Transition Battalion squad leader, Bravo Camp, Fort Sam Houston. “She’s the soldier I wish everyone was.”
Elmlinger is motivated, driven and responsible, Seale said.
He added, “She’s a mother and a soldier at the same time. She doesn’t let her disability stop her from getting to the next step or from always moving forward, and maybe that’s just so ingrained in her that she’s always been that way.”
Elmlinger has “had some dark times, but she’s willing to be frank with that, and that’s what makes her so human and so admirable -- the fact that she’s willing to show that vulnerability -- and I’ll miss her,” Seale said.
During her recovery, Elmlinger found out about the Fort Sam Houston Warrior Transition Battalion’s Soldier Adaptive Reconditioning Program and started her athletic training. She uses a prosthetic on her leg and is able to walk day-to-day but can’t run any more, so through Texas Regional Paralympics Sport, she learned about wheelchair racing on the track.
“My heart was really into running, and I can’t run, so they fitted me for a wheelchair,” Elmlinger said. “It was a steep learning curve at first, but I enjoyed being back out on the track and back out on the road like I was back in that running element again. It helped me get back to feeling like me again. Running had been such a big part of my life. Adaptive sports have been very beneficial for me.”
Elmlinger credits her success to her support network.
“Without a doubt, I would not have gotten to this point had it not been for my family, my friends, my colleagues and peers,” she said. “From my mom and dad raising all of us and the foundation they gave us, to all ups and downs throughout my career and in the past couple of years, and to all of those people who encouraged me in those moments that I’ve learned from and became stronger from and then now, I just want to say thank you.”