Holly Koester, '81 is the first wheelchair racer to complete a marathon in all 50 states. She was one of 11 gold medalists – and the only female athlete – from the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in 2007 to appear on the front of Cheerios cereal boxes sold in military outlets. Holly has also become a board member and sports director of the Buckeye chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, Ohio.
Holly Koester says she “practically lived in Dods Hall.” She played volleyball for the Blue Devils. She kept score for both the men’s and women’s basketball teams. She competed on countless recreational sports teams.
Even today – nearly 30 years after graduating from SUNY Fredonia – Ms. Koester hasn’t lost her passion for sports. What makes her so remarkable is that she lost something far more valuable: the use of her legs.
Yet even the spinal chord injury she suffered 20 years ago which confined this 1981 alumna and U.S. Army veteran to a wheelchair couldn’t squelch her insatiable love of athletics.
Today, Holly is a true pioneer in wheelchair racing. She’s the first-ever “wheeler” to complete marathons in all 50 states and, on a local level, the first to participate in SUNY Fredonia’s Ruterbusch Run.
The opportunity to see former coaches Dr. Everett Phillips (cross country, 1971 to 1995) and James Ulrich (track and field, 1974 to 1998) enticed Holly back to campus for the 2010 Homecoming.
She just missed seeing her former volleyball coach, Elizabeth Darling (“Miss D”), who was on campus only a week earlier.
Gliding along the 5K Ruterbusch course gave Holly a grand opportunity to view a campus that’s grown considerably since she and her twin sister, Joy, graduated. “It’s changed so much. I can’t really believe it,” she beamed. “I come back 30 years later and see this wonderful sports complex that they’ve got. It’s just awesome.
It was great to see the old sites.”
The Koester twins, 1977 graduates of Frontier High School in Hamburg, N.Y., were attracted to SUNY Fredonia by its just-right distance from home. “The thing that probably attracted us most to Fredonia was, number one, we really liked that it was far enough away from home that we didn’t have to worry about Mom and Dad bothering us, and yet it was close enough that if we needed something, we could give them a call.”
A compelling impression left by Coach Darling during a campus visit sealed the deal that brought the Koester sisters into the Blue Devils fold. They had different majors – Holly studied Political Science, while Joy chose Accounting – but both had insatiable appetites for athletics.
Following graduation, both sisters, who had enrolled in the ROTC program, were commissioned second Lieutenants in the army and served together in their first overseas tour, 1982 to 1985. Though assigned to different companies in Nuremburg, Germany – Holly in Maintenance, Joy in Supply – soldiers in their respective battalions had difficulty telling them apart whenever they were seen together. Holly returned stateside in 1985 and became a commander of the Heavy Maintenance Company in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).
Even in the service, athletics was a major part of their lives. Both girls played on many softball and co-ed volleyball teams and also tried out for the All-Army Volleyball team.
Holly was assigned to Redstone Arsenal, in Huntsville, Ala., where she was in a motor vehicle accident on Aug. 10, 1990, that injured her spinal chord and left her without the use of her legs.
“We were on alert, as (Iraq President) Saddam Hussein had just invaded Kuwait,” she remembers. The vehicle, which is no longer made, flipped over on a temporary roadway that’s no longer used.
Of course, Holly didn’t believe doctors when they told her she would never walk again. “You never think you’re going to hear that. I was kind of in denial, and when my colonel came in to see me, I said I’d be back.” Reality set in, though, and Holly became depressed, thinking that she wouldn’t be able to compete anymore.
Such a devastating injury, of course, alarmed the entire Koester family. Joy, then a reservist, had been called back to active duty and her unit was gearing up for deployment to Iraq when she heard the devastating news. “I was pretty much shocked, and very scared,” Joy recalled. Within 12 hours, Joy was on a flight to Alabama to comfort her sister.
Both girls were now facing major challenges, yet each was constrained in what one could do to support the other. “I know she really felt bad that she couldn’t participate more in my recuperation, and I felt bad not being able to help her more,” Holly said. Joy’s unit was about to enter a war zone; Holly had to learn to forge a new life without use of her legs.
Holly was placed under the care of the Veterans Medical Center’s top spinal cord physicians in Cleveland, Ohio. Her first major physical challenge was to develop upper body strength so she could perform “transfer skills” that would allow Holly to shift her body into a chair, a bed, a shower stall or a car seat. Her recreational therapist, knowing of Holly’s athletic prowess, wanted to engage her in sports again, so he took her to the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Miami, Fla., to see 500 wheelchair athletes engaged in various competitive events.
That’s all it took to re-ignite Holly’s passion for athletics.
The entire Koester family saw Holly struggle mightily, but ultimately complete the obstacle course at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. “She wouldn’t give up. The time had passed that everyone else had finished, but they let her stay on the course and finish it, and you could tell she wasn’t going to get off the course until she did,” Joy recalled.
“I was so proud of her. I ran up and gave her a big hug. We were both crying; my mom was crying, (my sister) KC was crying. We were just so proud that she didn’t give up.” The Koester family knew then that Holly still had that desire to compete, and she wasn’t going to let a physical limitation get in the way.
Holly quickly climbed the road racing ladder, going from 5Ks to 10Ks to half-marathons before embarking on her first full marathon in Columbus, Ohio, in 1995. And what an exhilarating experience it was for Holly. “My sister, KC, was running along the sidelines near the end, screaming, ‘Come on, Holly! You can finish in under four hours if you hurry up!’”
While at the Houston Marathon expo, Holly learned about the 50 State Marathon Club and discovered that its roster had no wheelers. A veteran of marathons in seven states by now, Holly had a new athletic challenge. “I never thought I’d really get to all the states, but I figured – what a goal!”
For the next three years Holly completed 16 or 17 marathons a year; in many cases, she was the lone wheeler. Holly has two racing wheelchairs, one that’s pedal-driven with 21 speeds, which she used at the Ruterbusch Run, the other a sleek push-rim model.
Her 50-state journey ended in August 2008 in Juneau, Alaska. It was also her 102nd overall marathon.
A longtime friend, Dave Ludlow, ’73, was at the Ruterbusch Run to see her and isn’t at all stunned by her success as a wheelchair athlete. “Nothing surprises me that she does because she has always been aggressive. Just don’t get in her way,” he cautioned.
Holly had always enjoyed running and was a member of the SUNY Fredonia track team, where she usually finished in the back of the pack. “I’m more of a ‘middle-of-the-road’ athlete. I’m not fast in my marathons, but I figure it’s better to be out there competing. I’ve been a competitor all my life.”
Her modesty is genuine, but it considerably understates just how inspiring Holly has been to countless individuals across the U.S. She was one of 11 gold medalists –
and the only female athlete – from the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in 2007 to appear on the front of Cheerios cereal boxes sold in military outlets. Holly has also become a board member and sports director of the Buckeye chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, Ohio.
Having a twin who rose to the rank of colonel created a unique link for Holly to still experience military life, though vicariously, from a wheelchair. Back in 2005, Joy was involved in final training that troops undergo before being sent to Iraq, and Holly was able to join her in the line of officers who wished them a safe return as they boarded their planes.
“I was able to sit in on a couple of briefings she gave,” she added. “She was always telling me what was going on in the military, keeping me up to date with different things she was doing.”
The twins, whose last race together was the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon in 1990, hit the pavement together at the Air Force Marathon, in Dayton, Ohio, in 2010. And this time both were in wheelchairs. Joy had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma two years earlier. Fortunately, she’s in remission, thanks to chemotherapy and radiation treatment. She can no longer run long distances, but now has a pedal-driven wheelchair – the kind that propelled Holly at the Ruterbusch Run.
Holly left the service in 1991 with the rank of captain and today lives in Cleveland, where she is a substitute teacher in two suburban school districts.
“I explain to [the students] that there are going to be a lot of challenges that they meet in life,” she says. “The challenge that I met was being in a wheelchair. They’re going to find challenges: they might want to ask someone out, they may want to go to college, or they need to pass a test. Everybody is going to have their own challenges.
“If you look at this as just an obstacle, rather than a roadblock, there’s always a way around an obstacle. That’s how I let them know about my racing, and I try to get them motivated,” she said.