News for NMU Employees

Fearless Freshman Makes Bid for 2016 Paralympics

Despite a rare birth defect that requires her to wear a prosthetic left leg, NMU freshman and parakayaker Kelly Allen considers herself lucky and wouldn’t change a thing. In fact, she says her disability “has opened more doors than it closed.” That bold statement is delivered with Allen’s signature can-do spirit and infectious enthusiasm. It is also backed by a long list of athletic and personal achievements. Her dream is to add at least one more: 2016 Paralympian.

Allen was introduced to parakayaking while a student at Kingsford High School. She began competing in the Extremity Games, an adaptive sporting event for athletes with amputations or limb differences, and earned five gold medals over seven years. She has since been inducted into the Athletes with Disabilities Hall of Fame as a Rising Star and was selected to be a youth ambassador at the Vancouver Winter Paralympics. With Team USA the past three years, Allen has recorded two first-place finishes in the U.S. Team Trials and three top-10 finishes in the ICF World Championships. Her volunteer service teaching disabled veterans how to kayak helped to earn her a spotlight in actress/comedian Amy Poehler’s “Smart Girl” video series.

The determination required to surmount challenges was instilled in Allen at a young age. She was born in 1992 with Proximal Femoral Focal Deficiency, type D. Her left femur, patella and fibula were missing and her hip had not fully developed. She quickly recognized that she was physically different from her peers, but never viewed it as a limitation.

“As the youngest of four kids in my family, I wanted to try everything my older siblings were doing,” Allen said. “We played soccer, baseball, volleyball and worked toward our black belts in karate. My parents were very supportive. Because we lived in a small community, there were very few disabled people and no adaptive sports or anything like that. In order to join in and be active, I had to play sports like everyone else with no special treatment. I didn’t always excel, but I always pushed myself. I competed on the varsity tennis and ski teams.”

Allen wanted to take alpine skiing to the next level after high school. She moved to Colorado to train for the 2014 Paralympic Games. A torn ACL her first season thwarted that goal and forced an early retirement, but it opened other doors that now define her athletic and professional goals.

When Allen learned that kayaking would be a new event at the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games, she moved to Texas to train with former Olympian Ben Kvanli. Her down time was spent helping with her coach’s nonprofit Veterans Adventure (pictured), which enhances the lives of wounded military members by creating river adventures for all ages and abilities.

“It sounds cheesy, but the connection I had with them was magical because we shared that common bond of a missing limb. They saw what I was capable of and that helped to motivate them. Sometimes it meant shouting encouragement at a Marine to ‘finish the mission,’ but they were really receptive to what I was trying to teach them. One soldier volunteer who wasn’t wounded told me he was so inspired watching me move that he wasn’t afraid to go to Iraq and potentially lose a limb. He said I showed him there’s not only life after that, but it can be active, productive and rewarding. That was better than all the medals I’ve won. That experience made me decide to pursue a career in outdoor recreation management. I did a lot of research and found that Northern has a great program, so I moved back to the U.P. in September.”

Allen is adjusting to her dual role as a 22-year-old college freshman and facility use athlete at the Olympic Training Site (OTS) on campus. Under the guidance of weightlifting coach Vance Newgard, she is working to improve her strength and conditioning. Being at NMU allows her to prepare for her Paralympic bid while completing her degree.

The OTS is not a Paralympic training site, but Allen said she would love to play a role in possibly expanding its mission to include that someday. After graduation, she may return to the veterans program in Texas, operate her own nonprofit organization for wounded veterans or perhaps establish more adaptive sports opportunities in her native Upper Peninsula. With Allen’s penchant for fierce, focused paddling through turbulent waters, it would not be surprising if she achieves all of the above. This courageous young woman who has made the most of every new opportunity afforded her has committed her future to opening doors for others.

See the Amy Poehler “Smart Girl” video on Allen here