One day, three years ago, Katie O’Grady sat in her room wondering if she would ever run free and easy again.

Diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at the age of 5, O’Grady beat the odds and became a top cross country runner at North Rockland High School in Tomkins Cove, N.Y.

Cystic fibrosis affects mostly the lungs and makes it difficult to breathe. It produces thick mucus that clogs the airways, O’Grady said.

But O’Grady never allowed that obstacle to prevent her from pursuing her passion of long distance running. Through her junior year, she was one of the top runners at North Rockland.

The disease struck hard her senior year. Simply running 50 meters became a difficult task.

Making her senior year even more heart wrenching was her mother was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer and eventually passed away.

“My mom was not just a mom, she was something special,” O’Grady wrote in a paper. “She was one of the few that always believed in me. She always said ‘Kate one day you will breakthrough and do great things.’ Being a teen, I felt good when she said that, but also thought, yeah, OK mom, you're suppose to say that.”

In O’Grady’s paper titled, “Beating the Odds,” her opening paragraph gives a poignant observation on that one day when she allowed doubts about running again to enter her mind:

A beam of light enters the room and there I sit, looking out my window at these red cardinals dancing in the spring air. Most people would say the day couldn’t get any better, but there I sit, getting IV fluids pumped into me. At that very moment, I cannot keep myself from replaying a 10-mile long run I had done approximately a year earlier. I had felt amazing that day, so free and so fast, like I could never stop flying, just like those birds. A single tear rolls down my face, accompanied by the unpreventable question, “Will I ever experience that again?”

The answer is a resounding yes. Despite a difficult senior year, O’Grady earned a scholarship to run cross country and track at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, N.Y.

It is important to know O’Grady’s back-story to appreciate where she is today. She is a member of the first St. Thomas Aquinas College women’s cross country team to compete in the NCAA Division II Championships, which will be held Nov. 21 in Joplin, Mo.

RELATED: DII men's and women's cross country championships qualifiers announced

St. Thomas Aquinas Athletics
O’Grady, a junior at St. Thomas Aquinas College, played an important role in helping the Spartans reach nationals. She was fourth on her team, placing 40th out of 186 runners in the East Region meet on Nov. 8. Junior Meaghan Ventarola was 12th overall, junior Kristen Borrielo was 13th and senior Gabriela Sloezen was 27th.

“Last year we came up short and almost made it,” O’Grady said Friday in a telephone interview. “I know last year was a disappointment.

“We trained extremely hard over the summer to have this main goal. We were pretty confident and we were able to succeed.”

O’Grady means more to the cross country team than her solid performance at region that helped the Panthers place third out of 28 teams. She is an inspiration. Her teammates know what she has to go through to be in position to run each day.

Besides studying to become a physical therapist and training to be the best cross country runner she can be, O’Grady must do two hours of treatment every day for cystic fibrosis.

“I think Katie is the heart of this team,” St. Thomas Aquinas coach Nicole Ballou said. “Everybody on the team understands what she goes through every day and the amount of treatment she needs to have. It puts life in perspective and helps everybody to not take anything for granted. Nobody will have a bad day when they turn around and look at Katie, knowing what she goes through. She is always smiling and always out there pushing us.”

When O’Grady steps to the line for the start of the Division II Championships on Saturday, she will be like her teammates and hundreds of other runners, eager to see how all the hard work has prepared them against the best in the country.

O’Grady and her teammates understand just how precious it is to make a national meet.

“We were really excited this week,” she said. “We were on cloud nine. We have trained extremely hard. We have high expectations for nationals, too.”

O’Grady fights through her tough days because she wants to be just like every other member on the team and do her part to help the team.

The way she sees it, she is fortunate to be in her position.

“I have a bunch of friends who are always in the hospital and they have to get lung transplants,” O’Grady said. “The fact I am able to run at the collegiate level is just amazing.”

Ballou said St. Thomas Aquinas College cross country program was fortunate to get a runner of O’Grady’s ability.

“Katie had a great high school career,” Ballou said. “She showed interest early on when we spoke to her because the school is close to home. She wanted to be at home to handle her treatments. We got lucky. We knew we were going to get a steal because any school would be happy to have her.

“She is so motivated as a person. She is the type of person you love having on your team. She is extremely coachable. Just watching her high school career and how much she progressed, we knew she would help our team get to the next level.”

A trip to nationals with teammates is special for all involved. Memories will be created that will last a lifetime.

The Panthers will fly out of New York on Wednesday and arrive in Joplin that evening.

“A major part is my team and being able to run with such a great group of girls and being able to accomplish great things,” O’Grady said of why she enjoys competing at the Division II level. “It is what I always wanted. Being part of this team makes that possible.”

O’Grady is open about telling her story because it might help another person.

“My major reason is to motivate other people,” she said. “If you have a disease or a disability or even if you are a regular runner or athlete in general, push yourself because anything you believe in is possible and you can accomplish it. I have seen that in myself and I try to tell other people that if you have that gut feeling you can do something, you usually can.”

 

Men’s soccer tournament

The first time Palm Beach Atlantic played host to a NCAA regional soccer match it was successful.

Palm Beach Atlantic, the top seed in Super Region 2, came up with a shutout performance in its second round game against West Alabama Saturday night.

A goal by junior Oscar Farias in the 25th minute gave Palm Beach Atlantic a 1-0 lead. The Sailfish increased their lead to 2-0 in the 56th minute on a goal by junior Lucus Coutinho. Senior goalkeeper Steeven Raymont got the shutout.

“This season has been a journey so far, and I’ve told the guys since day one that this year is a marathon and not a sprint,” said coach Brian McMahon on the school’s website. “It is great we got the win tonight, but we have to turn our focus to an outstanding Rollins team as we get ready for Friday night.”

Palm Beach Atlantic, 16-1-1, will play Rollin, 11-7, in the third round.

All third round games are Thursday or Friday and the quarterfinals will be Saturday or Sunday at the highest seed remaining.

MORE: DII Men's Soccer Interactive Bracket

Women’s soccer tournament

Barry University, the No. 1 seed in the South Region, won its second round game 1-0 over West Florida on Sunday and improved to 14-2-1.

The Buccaneers, who are playing in their 22nd NCAA Division II Women’s Soccer Championship, return to action on Friday for the third round. The quarterfinals will be on Sunday. 

MORE: DII Women's Soccer Interactive Bracket