Despite being born without part of her left foot, Katelyn McGowan has a daredevil streak
One day at a local gymnastics club, the coaches brought everyone together to talk about the girl with no toes on her left foot.
“They said, ‘This is Katelyn. Everyone look at her foot,’ ” said Mike McGowan, whose daughter was the subject of the meeting. “If you want to ask any questions, do it now. She’s been here doing everything all the other girls can do.”
With that, everyone – including Katelyn – went back to practice. Born without a portion of her left foot, she long ago accepted it as a fact of life.
But it’s a curiosity to others, especially when they find out that it didn’t prevent her from becoming an athlete. The Eagan High School junior tried multiple sports before settling on gymnastics and pole vault.
Choosing those two reveals a bit of a daredevil streak. When she was about 6 years old, Katelyn and her father went hiking in Interstate Park, on the Wisconsin side of the St. Croix River. Katelyn saw some people diving into the river from a cliff and asked her father if she could do it.
Cliff diving is against park rules, so the answer was no. But it didn’t surprise her father that she wanted to try it because Mike McGowan describes Katelyn as “totally, totally fearless.”
Katelyn is in her fifth season on the Eagan gymnastics team. She competes mostly on the junior varsity but has taken some varsity turns on the balance beam.
“My parents always put me in sports. They didn’t say I wouldn’t be able to do it,” she said at a recent gymnastics practice. “When I was younger I knew my foot was different, but it never really occurred to me to stop because I’d been able to do everything else in my life normally. Might as well keep going.”
She did youth soccer, basketball and softball and started taking gymnastics classes at age 4, first at Gleason’s in Eagan, later at Thompson Academy of Gymnastics South in Apple Valley.
She did not compete at the club level but by seventh grade was ready to give high school gymnastics a try and joined Eagan’s program.
Eagan coach Shelly Eklund had Katelyn make her debut on junior varsity balance beam, which might seem a strange choice for someone with a physical limitation that could affect her balance. Eklund recalls Joy McGowan, Katelyn’s mother, as not being particularly happy that her daughter’s first high school event was the beam.
“My mom brings it up all the time,” Katelyn said. “I was actually surprised it was my first event because the beam is a little harder.”
“I don’t think I was upset as much as I was surprised,” Joy McGowan said. “And I was probably nervous for her, a little apprehensive. But she did it, and she didn’t fall. I was very proud of her, as I have been all the way through.”
The McGowans say Katelyn’s doctors don’t know why she wasn’t born with a fully formed left foot. She still visits an orthopedist regularly, with the goal to make sure she can live her life with as few restrictions as possible. She’s had an operation intended to ensure that both legs remain the same length. Mike McGowan said Katelyn has grown faster than her doctors anticipated and now is the tallest gymnast on Eagan’s team.
“My mom said I was basically normal with everything. She said I was walking at the same time as anybody else,” Katelyn said.
“The memory I have that I knew I was different is, I was playing with a couple of my friends – I was 3 at the time – and they asked my dad what was wrong with my foot. He said, ‘Oh, she was just born different.’ All my friends were fine with it.”
Asked if she considers the foot a hindrance in any way, Katelyn said, smiling, “besides not being able to wear the latest fashion in shoes, nothing big, nothing major.”
Athletically, however, it certainly doesn’t help.
“I do pole vault, so it’s like sprinting,” she said. “It’s a little harder to sprint when I don’t have anything to push off of. It’s a little harder on beam because there’s less to hold on to. Other than that, it’s not a huge deal.
“I have had some coaches say I don’t run very fast. I don’t know if that’s because of my foot or because I’m just not a runner.”
Katelyn cleared 8 feet, 6 inches in the pole vault at the Section 3AA track and field meet in May. She’s hoping to vault 9 feet by early next season and possibly 9-6 by the next section meet. In gymnastics, she said she wants to be a regular varsity participant on beam and improve her skills in the other events.
Not as many people pay attention to her foot these days, Katelyn said. She has had some coaches tell her they’re happy to see her continuing to compete.
That’s a testament to Katelyn’s spirit, according to her mother.
“She has never let her foot keep her from trying anything she wanted to try,” Joy McGowan said. “She has a very good attitude about that. She’s never allowed it to be a negative.”