There's no confining her competitive spirit
Paralympian: With an optimism that sees life in a wheelchair as 'so freeing,' Susan Katz has won over friends and foes alike on her road to Athens.

By Gerald P. Merrell
Sun Staff

September 21, 2004

They fought for months. Passionately, always. Heatedly, sometimes.

Susan Katz was just 11 years old, but she was determined to win this argument with her parents because she understood so clearly, so absolutely, what was at stake.

Born with spina bifida, she'd undergone surgery a few months earlier to relieve her stretched spinal cord. But the operation didn't go as expected, leaving Katz with two options: walk with the aid of crutches and braces, or use a wheelchair.

"We battled it out on that one," Katz recalls. "My parents just wanted me to walk. However it was going to be, they wanted me to walk."

Katz stubbornly refused to budge. Finally, her parents relented, allowing their daughter to assign herself to a lifetime in the chair.

Today, nearly 15 years later, Katz voices no regrets, neither with the decision, nor with the limitations that confront her daily. Indeed, she speaks almost reverently of the changes that followed.

"It was so freeing. All of a sudden the whole world opened up to me again," she says. "My situation has given me more opportunities and more incredible experiences than I could ever ask for, and they're nothing I would have ever had if I were on this Earth on two feet."

One of those experiences is unfolding as Katz, a Silver Spring resident, competes with the United States women's wheelchair basketball team in the Paralympic Games in Athens. The Games, which opened Friday, feature about 4,000 athletes from 145 nations in 19 events.

The U.S. women beat the Netherlands, 57-38, yesterday after Sunday's 62-61 loss to Australia. The U.S. team ends preliminary round play tomorrow against Great Britain.

For Katz, 25, it is her second and probably final Paralympics. And while she's an accomplished athlete, it is her contagious laugh and uninhibited optimism that most people remember.

"Susie is absolutely genuine," says Michael Frogley, who coached her at the University of Illinois, from which she graduated in 2000. "She doesn't see obstacles; she sees goals."

Worsening condition

Every year, 4,000 babies in the United States are born with spina bifida, a disabling birth defect that occurs when the spinal column does not close completely. Conditions in severe cases may include complete paralysis, learning disabilities, depression and fluid on the brain.

Katz was born with a relatively minor form of the condition. Although her left foot was paralyzed, requiring her to wear a brace below the knee, she could walk and run.

"When I was younger, I didn't really notice a difference," she says. "I knew I couldn't run as fast, or walk as far, but my parents never treated me like a kid with a disability. I didn't get treated any different than my sister. They wanted me involved and doing as much as the other kids."

Katz was born in Olney, but moved to California at an early age when her father was transferred there. Her childhood was not unlike that of most children. She played youth sports and got around easily on family outings. When she was 10, though, she noticed weakening in her right leg. Physicians said her spinal cord was "tethered," or abnormally stretched, and advised surgery.

Just how it happened isn't certain, but Katz emerged from surgery paralyzed from the waist down. Some functions slowly returned, but she found herself strapped in a brace stretching from hips to toes, and could walk only with crutches or a walker. The family considered filing a lawsuit, but then had a change of heart.

"She went from a kid who could pretty much get around to someone who was disabled," says her mother, Barbara Katz. "You're angry at the time, you want to go after the doctors ... but we looked at each other and said we have to put our efforts into getting our child healthy."

Months of physical therapy didn't produce major changes, so Katz's parents admitted her into a Shriner's hospital for treatment, hoping specialists could help her walk again.

Their daughter, though, had ideas of her own. She was elated by the mobility and sense of achievement being in a wheelchair gave her.

"The one thing I always remember is setting the table," she says. "If I was walking on the crutches I couldn't carry the plates and the glasses. But if I got into the wheelchair, I could put it all in my lap and it was so much easier."

After just one week of therapy at the Shriner's hospital, she recalls, "I came home and said, 'I'm not doing that anymore.'"

Always an athlete

David Katz is an engineer by profession, but a sports enthusiast at heart, and he tried to cultivate in his two daughters the same passion for athletics.

It didn't work all that well with his eldest daughter, Jennifer, but it certainly took with Susan.

At the age of 6, she wanted to be a sports broadcaster like her idol, Gayle Gardner. "I thought, I love sports, and I love to talk, and there's someone out there who might pay me to talk about sports," she says. "I thought it was a dream come true."

Before her disabling surgery, she competed in youth softball and enjoyed the family's trips to watch Angels baseball and their camping and fishing outings. Nine months after surgery, she was introduced to wheelchair sports after joining a recreational program.

"It was a level playing field," she says. "We were all starting from the same point, and there was nothing different about me in that arena. I was just like everyone else, and I competed at the same level."

Track and field came first. At 17, she competed in the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta in the javelin, discus and shot put events. She won no medals, but Katz says that was never the point: "I always said, 'If I just make the team, I'll be happy.' I was there for the experience."

Something was missing while competing as an individual, though, so Katz shifted her focus to basketball, which, she says, "is not something that remotely comes easy to me. It's extremely challenging."

On to national stage

Perhaps. But she's also very talented. Katz earned four letters in wheelchair basketball at the University of Illinois and was named to the U.S. team that won a silver medal in the 1998 Gold Cup World Championships in Sydney, Australia. She was named to the national team last year as well, and was a member of the Orlando Ice, one of 10 teams in an elite league sponsored by the National Wheelchair Basketball Association.

After graduating from college, Katz was hired as a production assistant by sports network ESPN, and now works in Washington as assistant producer of its daily talkfest, Around the Horn.

She's abandoned her dream of becoming a sports broadcaster, concluding after two years at ESPN: "It's on the air and it's done. There's no permanence of your work. I want something that makes a difference to someone - that impacts someone's life in some way."

Katz views competition in an equally straightforward manner. "She's a hard worker, disciplined, responsible," says Ronald Lykins, head coach of the U.S. women's wheelchair team. "She's very serious about what she's doing and expects her teammates to be that way."

As for her Paralympic ambition this time? "Gold medal or bust," Katz says without hesitation.

And even though health problems have required her to be hospitalized several times, there is nothing that Katz sees more clearly than her disability.

"It's not something I'm angry about or upset about," she says. "Honestly, it's given me an incredible life and so many opportunities. It's just who I am and the way I am. I wouldn't trade my life for anything in the world. It's pretty great."

Copyright 2004, The Baltimore Sun