In our Spartan Spirit Awards, we celebrate the people who truly embody the key Spartan values: grit, determination, and perseverance. This week’s Spirit Awards winner, Caitlin Conner, survived a life-altering motorcycle accident that cost her her leg. Read her story, and how she overcame this obstacle to not only be an inspiring athlete, but also to help inspire other paralympic athletes to feel equal through teamwork in OCR.
“It’s mind over matter if you allow it to be… I love the diversity of challenges in Spartan, and the mental part of beating obstacles.” – Caitlin Conner
Sometimes it takes terrible adversity to teach someone how strong she is. Such is the case with this week’s Spartan Spirit Award winner, Caitlin Conner: adaptive athlete, model, mother, Spartan Para Elite competitor, and founder of the non-profit BE MORE ADAPTIVE, a comprehensive resource for the adaptive community. In 2014, Caitlin was newly married and about to turn 24 when she climbed on a motorcycle to head a mile away for dinner with her in-laws. She and her then-husband were struck by a woman who was texting while driving. Caitlin flew off the back of the bike and rolled, losing 75% of her ankle upon impact. The accident severed a major artery in Caitlin’s leg, and it’s possible she survived because of the intervention of an off-duty nurse who applied a makeshift tourniquet. Caitlin was airlifted to a Level 1 Trauma hospital in Fort Worth, and it’s there that her story as an athlete begins. We admire her grit and tenacity almost as much as her drive to help others.
SPARTAN RACE: Will you tell us what you were thinking when you woke up in the hospital?
CAITLIN CONNER: I woke up in the hospital at 2 a.m. with my leg in an external fixator, surrounded by family, and the attending nurse said, “Oh good. You’re awake. I want to let you know you’re four weeks pregnant.” I had seven surgeries on my foot in a two week period, and the seventh was the amputation of my lower limb. Because I was pregnant, I chose to have minimal antibiotics, pain medicine and anesthesia so I would not damage the baby. My pain level was a 10, but I smiled through it, because it would not be fair to take it out on my caretakers. As soon as I got out of the hospital, I stopped taking everything, cold turkey. I had to change my state of mind. It’s mind over matter if you allow it to be. The stress could have damaged the baby so I stayed as calm as I could.
How Caitlin Conner Transformed Injury into Athleticism
SR: Can you tell us about your transformation from patient to athlete?
CC: (My ex-husband) and I both came home from the hospital in wheelchairs. I had to learn to walk again four times. First it was with crutches. Then I got my first prosthetic. I walked my first three steps; it was excruciatingly painful but I was so proud. I turned around to take three steps back and my new prosthesis cracked underneath me. Keep in mind, I was pregnant and my weight was changing. I gained 62 pounds over the course of the pregnancy. With my second prosthetic, the pregnancy altered the curve of my spine so I wound up falling, breaking the end of a bone spur off that had developed on my amputated limb. I delivered my daughter Tinley on Feb 13 (I consider her my best Valentine’s present ever). Finally, I had my balance back. For the first time in my life, I set a real goal: I would walk and run before Tinley started walking and running. I had never been an athlete. I just wanted to be a healthy Mom who could keep up with her kid. My prosthetic provider was putting together a team for a 5K and they helped me apply to the Challenged Athletes Foundation for a grant for a running prosthesis, which I got! I set the goal to cover the 5K in under an hour. I finished in 58 minutes, exceeding what I had been able to do with 2 legs. Then it was on!
SR: Exactly what you mean by “Then it was on!”? We know you do a lot of sports.
CC: I started going to CrossFit. I wanted to participate in a triathlon relay the Challenged Athletes Foundation was putting on for para athletes as my way to pay it forward. I would do the cycling and two other friends I enlisted would do the swimming and running. I didn’t even have a bike; a local bike shop gave me one. I started training but I fell off my bike, fractured my ulna, and lost three months of training. But I did the relay anyway. Someone had to help push me up the first hill. . .but it was love that brought me there—all the gear had been given to me—so I kept going. I cried under my sunglasses, yet I finished a 44-mile ride. After that, I finished seven triathlons in a year and became the first female amputee boxer in the US. I’ve earned 28 medals in various sports.
Caitlin Conner’s Journey to Becoming a Spartan Warrior
SR: How did you get involved with Spartan?
CC: A nonprofit I was a member of called “Team Some Assembly Required” was putting together a team for the first Spartan Para Elite Race in November, 2018, in Laughlin, Nevada. My Spartan team, also called Some Assembly Required, consisted of me, Joe Fonseca, Trevor Battah, and Jeremy Ogle. I didn’t know how I would manage the ropes since I had never climbed one before, so I trained for them at CrossFit. The Spartan course was a sandy 4.78 mile course of 20 obstacles. It was incredible. I was the only one on my team to complete the rope climb, ironically. I loved the a-frame; I was up and down that thing so fast. But I was awful at burpees: the worst on my team. The point is we were helping each other. Sometimes you would see athletes carrying a teammate to help keep him or her going. For once, we were the elite. We were given a chance to prove how much we deserve to be treated equally. My team came in first.
SR: Was that your only Spartan Race?
CC: I also competed in Austin and San Antonio. The San Antonio race was a Para Spartan training race in which I, and other athletes, went through the course coaching new para athletes, as well as using it as a training run. Coaching other adaptive athletes was meaningful to me because Spartan showed me there are things I didn’t think I could do, that I can do, and making that happen for someone else is amazing. Unfortunately in San Antonio, I rolled my ankle on a rock and heard snaps and cracks. I borrowed a friend’s walking poles to get through the obstacles, skipping some, but managing the rings for the first time, the a-frame, the herc hoist, the z wall, and the fire jump. Later my orthopedic doctor said I had a high-grade sprain. I have an incredibly high pain threshold.
SR: Will you compete in the 2019 Para Elite Championship in Laughlin?
CC: The weekend of the race (Nov 16) I will be coaching kids with limb differences in soccer, weight training and softball at Camp Nubability, so I can’t make it this year. I had to prioritize those kids.