Pushing with a Smile

From her service in the U.S. Army, to teacher to wheelchair racer, Holly Koester does it with a smile

By Christopher Di Virgilio

Retired U.S. Army captain Holly Koester is always smiling. She isn’t trying to mask some deep, dark secret or hide a life of pain. No, she simply enjoys sharing her smile with the world.

In fact, her smile is one of the things people notice most about her. Whether it’s racing, teaching or her many public speaking engagements.

“I think a lot of people like my smile,” says Koester. “When I’m racing, people say I smile the whole time, and after doing an inspirational talk, they often want to know how I can talk and smile at the same time.”

The 57-year-old Ohio resident describes herself as a wheelchair racer, dog lover and teacher, and although it’s been a number of years since she’s worn the uniform of the U.S. Army, the retired captain still maintains a very goal oriented routine.

“I need to feel a sense of accomplishment,” says Koester. “When I work with my mom, who has Alzheimer’s, it feels better when we have a finished product.”

But in 1990, her life took a drastic turn when an on-post driving accident left her facing the challenge of a lifetime.

One day before D-Day for Desert Storm, Koester had just reported for duty at Red Stone Arsenal in Alabama to be a Tow-2 maintenance officer when she was involved in a vehicle accident that left her with a T-7 complete spinal-cord injury.

“I hadn’t fully processed in before the whole base was put on alert,” says Koester. I was a little depressed after I got hurt. I was told I’d never walk again and the things I used to do that were so easy are now hard work, take a lot longer and sometimes require the help of others.”

Fortunately for Koester, her family and close friends put their lives on hold to help.

“They were so supportive … visiting me in the Dept., of Veterans Affairs Medical Facility (VAMC),” says Koester. “I knew I needed to get myself together so they could get on with their lives.”

And get it together she did. Less than one year after her accident, Koester registered for her first National Veterans Wheelchair Games and it wasn’t long after her experience at NVWG that she realized sports would soon be a big part of her rehabilitation and happiness.

“After I attended my first veterans games, I knew I could get back into life,” says Koester. “I saw over 300 veterans in wheelchairs laughing and hugging and competing hard. I can’t explain the sense of freedom, confidence and independence I felt.  I knew I wanted to start working out to get stronger … not just to compete, but for everyday activities.”

Koester started wheelchair racing for recreation and competition and it wasn’t long before she was a familiar face within the racing community. She hit all the military races and marathons like the Air Force Marathon, Marine Corps Marathon, the Army 10-mile Run and the Pensacola – Navy Marathon.

She was invited to Houston by the Texas Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) chapter to represent PVA in the Houston Marathon and it was there she learned about the 50 State Marathoner Club. At the time, the club didn’t have a wheelchair division and Koester would have to complete a marathon in ten states in order to be accepted.

With seven states under her belt, Koester set her sights on the next marathon and the next state. From 2006 to 2008, Koester started checking off marathon after marathon … state after state.

“I completed Alaska, my 50th state in 2008,” says Koester. “I think the runners and I have a mutual respect for each other.  I’m not super-fast in my racing chair so most of the time I’m right alongside them.  They cheer me on as I struggle to get up a hill, and I cheer them on as I go down the hill past them.”

Koester enjoys when runners come up after a race to say that she’s inspired them to climb that hill or run when they wanted to walk, or just keep moving when they were ready to stop.

“I’m on my second time around the states with 35 states completed,” says Koester. “There are some runners that have gone around the states four or five times, so I’ve got my work cut out for me.”

Wheelchair racers are faced with many challenges, not only to their body but to their equipment. From flat tires to crashes into guard rails to pushing through gravel and sand, Koester keeps pushing and fighting to bring more awareness to the sport.

When she’s not pushing in a marathon, Koester is a substitute school teacher for K-8 kids, teaches a canine behavior class with Canine Good Citizen, is an active member of PVA’s Sports and Recreation Committee, Planned Giving Committee and is on PVA’s Buckeye Chapter board of directors.

“My biggest challenge as a teacher is being shorter than most of my students and not being able to reach anything but the bottom part of the blackboard,” says Koester. “I lose the intimidation factor as far as being short, but with my service dog Glory by my side, the students know they need to quiet down if they want to see Glory do her tasks or wander around the room.”

As for reaching that blackboard – Koester has the students do the work.

“As the U.S. Army marks 242 years, I just would like to say thank you to all the men and women who put on the uniform to defend my freedom,” says Koester. “I feel blessed I was in during peace time, and it’s because of the Vietnam veterans and what they went through that I’ve been treated with respect and honor. I thank the Army for training me to accept the circumstances that I’m handed and the skills to make the best of it.”

Koester was recently awarded the Paralyzed Veterans of America’s Speedy Award for her continued commitment to her community and peers in PVA.

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