There is nothing more humbling than seeing people achieve what we cannot. If we are wise, those heroes motivate us to do what we can. Katie was one such inspiration. She and I attended the same college, though not at the same time. Years after my graduation, Katie became the subject of a television report I wrote about remarkable people. I met her on campus when I was ushered into the pool area where several students were laughing and teaching a toddler to swim. Or so I thought. Upon closer inspection I realized this tiny bundle of life was actually 18-year-old Katie Lynch. All 28 astounding inches of her.
Katie couldn’t swim, yet she was having a ball, along with her friends, who were protectively keeping her afloat. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. She was just the size of a growing baby. But what a big personality she packed into her a small body. She had an adorable face fitted with thick, round petite glasses. It was hard to reconcile the reality of what I saw. A toddler on the outside displaying all the characteristics of a full-grown adult on the inside. Once she was out of the pool and sitting in her specially designed transport chair, she smiled, shook my hand — which was three times the size of hers — and was ready to talk.
The beauty of journalism is that it gives you immediate entry into another person’s most intimate world. By virtue of the job, you are given license to ask all those questions of a perfect stranger, that in a social situation you would never dream of pursuing out of sheer politeness. “What do people think when they first see you,” I asked Katie. “Well,” she said, in a raspy voice, “First they say, ‘wow, what a cute baby.’ “Then I talk… Latin.” We burst out laughing.
What a rare delight she was. Literally. Katie Lynch was born with a rare form of dwarfism that affects so few of the population that it’s still unnamed. I asked what her dreams were “do you hope to fall in love someday?” “I don’t think about things that can’t happen,” she replied in that raspy voice. There was not a trace of anger or regret when she said it. But I couldn’t help but feel sad. She didn’t deserve this life. Then I caught myself. Who was I to judge? This was the life she got. And if she wasn’t going to feel sorry for herself, how could I? Surely she had those “why me?” moments, but I believe she made a deliberate decision to focus on the life that she could have and not on the lives that were unavailable to her. That is what successful people do.
Katie graduated from Regis College summa cum laude. She worked for Children’s Hospital and became a popular motivational speaker. During the Boston Marathon one year, I went to interview the great record-holding marathoner and Olympic runner Bill Rodgers. I found him… talking to Katie! He, too, found her amazing. Her local newspaper, the Weston Town Crier, was so impressed that they wrote this about Katie: “At the age of 27, she opened the Boston Marathon and walked 26.2 feet. Katie triumphed over adversity with grace and courage to achieve a personal best and to challenge other athletes with different abilities to think and feel like champions. Her motivational force and mantra was “parva sed potens”…..which, in Latin, means “small, but powerful.”
Because of her physical limitations Katie could not run a 26 mile marathon, but she could walk a 26 foot one. Do what you can. Try to do more. Be positive. Be grateful. And live the life you have. This may sound like self-help mumbo jumbo. But together they form a great philosophy to live by. Beyond any movie star or politician, Katie was, hands down, one of the most interesting people I had ever met. I Googled Katie wondering what that pint-sized spirit was up to these days. I should not have been surprised by what I found, though I was deeply saddened. Katie had died just before she turned 28.
In her memory, her parents launched Katie’s Races to honor her. Quite aptly, her father referred to her as the “Little Engine that Could,” and shares his daughter’s conviction on their website “we all need to acknowledge the worth of every individual and remove the barriers that prevent people from participating in the community.” And now, when I worry that I might not have the graciousness or strength to weather all that life might throw my way, I know where to look for inspiration.