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Army veteran and cancer survivor heads to Tokyo for Paralympic Games

For Kelly Elmlinger, facing the unknown was never going to happen without steadfast commitment. Now that commitment is sending her to the Paralympics.

SAN ANTONIO — Rather than run from her problems, Kelly Elmlinger runs through them. 

“Here I am, 40-plus years old, and I'm running the same time as I did when I was 18, 19 years old,” Elmlinger said. “That’s awesome to me!” 

The athlete’s speed, strength and spirit serve her well. 

“I spent 20 years in the military,” Elmlinger said. 

As a combat medic, she cared for some of the most severely wounded soldiers. But in 2013, the roles reversed. She was admitted to Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) as a patient fighting cancer. 

“I was diagnosed with a rare tumor in my left leg,” Elmlinger said. “I had a lot of muscles, tendons and ligaments that were removed.” 

For three years, she tried saving her leg. There was little progress. 

“I just felt like my quality of life was not where I wanted it to be,” Elmlinger said. “So, in 2016 is when I asked my surgeon if we could amputate.” 

Elmlinger’s past prepared her for the future. The success stories of her previous patients pushed her through rehabilitation.  

“I knew it was going to be a tough road, but all those experiences kind of gave me a sense of peace,” Elmlinger said. “The sense of, 'It's going to be hard, it's going to be tough, but you're going to be OK.'” 

With help from a prosthetic, Elmlinger gained her second wind. 

“I found myself starting out in the sport of triathlon and grew a great deal of love for it,” Elmlinger said. “And here I am getting ready to head to Tokyo!”  

She leaves for the Paralympics next week with an attitude of gratitude. 

“It feels amazing,” Elmlinger said. “Wearing a uniform for 20-plus years and now getting to transition into a different uniform and still continue to represent the United States and my family. Not a lot of people get this.” 

Elmlinger has already won the race in resilience. Now she’s going for gold. Elmlinger will race in the paratriathlon on Sept. 29. 

"I'm looking to go out there and I'm looking to compete and put it all out there,” Elmlinger said. “And at the end of the day, that's all that you can ask for.”  

Elmlinger said her support system made up of friends, family and colleagues has led to her success. She also belongs to the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit that empowers veterans through physical wellness programs, mental health programs and independent living.  

“They've helped me out in so many ways, from initially being diagnosed and having my injury, to the time that I was getting ready to retire and now moving on into the world of athletics,” Elmlinger said. “I do have to recognize them, just for their steadfast support from basically the time that I was diagnosed up until the present.” 

Elmlinger wants people in her position to know they are not alone and that anything is possible. 

To learn more about the Wounded Warrior Project, click here