A consummate pro

Kathleen Sullivan received her first pair of prosthetics when she was 1. Now, she's a professional athlete preparing to compete in an international track and field competition in New Zealand.

Born without legs from above the knee down, Sullivan, 31, hasn't let it slow her down.

Doctors still don't know why she was born an amputee, and her mother had a normal pregnancy.

"I never owned a wheelchair in my entire life," she said. "And I guess that's a testament to my parents and what I was willing to try."

The Burbank resident tried on her first pair of running legs at 26 when she moved to California after college to pursue an acting career.

Encouraged by Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics staff, she tried out for an open running competition.

Within a year-and-a-half, she competed at the Pan Am games in Rio de Janeiro as a member of the United States' Parapan team. She beat her personal record for the 100-meter race by 18 seconds.

Sullivan was also the first bilateral above-the-knee amputee to compete internationally.

"This is a chapter in my life that I never anticipated," Sullivan said. "Being a professional athlete wasn't even on my bucket list."

Competing at the International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships in New Zealand may not have been a part of her grand plan, but Sullivan said she has embraced the incredible journey.

Track and Field events are divided into different competitions based on the level of amputation for individuals, she said.

As the first bilateral above-the-knee amputee competitor, Sullivan must race against women who have at least one leg. Often their second leg is amputated below the knee, a joint that Sullivan refers to as "amazing."

"It would be lovely to have a race with people who are my true peers," she said. "But someone has got to go out there and be the first."

The New Zealand race will be a comeback for Sullivan, who suffered a back injury just before the national qualifying race for the Beijing Olympics.

While still recovering from an illness, she decided to compete to "get the jitters out," but ended up falling on her neck and requiring stitches on her face.

Sullivan didn't run for almost eight months after the accident.

"At the same time it was disappointing, I needed to give myself time to heal and get back to where I needed to be," she said.

During her time off, Sullivan spent time acting and appeared in a play directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

She still spent every morning in the pool, and believes her dedication to keeping fit has helped her return stronger than ever.

Ryan Russell, a certified prosthetist who has known Sullivan for almost five years, said he is excited and nervous to see how she does in New Zealand.

Russell and fellow prosthetist Sanjay Gupta have designed Sullivan a brand new pair of running legs. The race later this month will be the first time she uses them in competition.

"Two to three years ago was the last time we saw her compete, and she was fast," Russell said. "But she's flying now."

He also attributes her improvement to her dedication to get in shape while she was not racing.

"She is definitely now a world-class athlete, and we are expecting great things," Russell said.

Her commitment hasn't gone unnoticed by the driving public, some of whom wave or even stop and ask Sullivan questions while she's jogging in the neighborhood.

"I get a lot of strange looks, and people definitely notice me," she said. "But it's nice to feel like your community is impressed by you in some way."

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