Don’t let Krista Pylkki’s beaming smile fool you.
Beneath her wide grin and hearty laughter lies a fierce competitive spirit.
A track coach who spent two summers working with her put it best:
“She hates to lose,” said Traci Pastoors, who graduated from Totino-Grace High School in Fridley in 2008 and was a track team captain there and at the University of St. Thomas. “She has a focus unlike anyone I’ve ever coached.”
Many of the great athletes in sports share this disdain for failure, which often propels them to greatness.
But what happens when soaring ambitions are trapped inside a disabled body?
That’s the tension that Pylkki wrestles with every day she hits the track to run her three events — the 100, 200 and 400 meters. Born with mild cerebral palsy, she started off in swimming, then made a gradual switch to track and field several years ago.
Her goal was to qualify for the U.S. team at the Paralympic Games, which began in London Aug. 29 and run to Sept. 9. A 2012 graduate of Totino-Grace, she trained with Pastoors in the summer, hoping her efforts would pay off in the form of a berth on the team.
Alas, Pylkki was not among the 19 female track athletes selected, even though she finished second in the 400 at the paralympic trials last month in Indianapolis with a personal-best time of 1 minute, 17.73 seconds.
The selection process is complicated, taking into account various factors, only one of which is an athlete’s time in the trials. In that category, she met the standard. Hours after the final event of the trials, however, she found out she wasn’t quite strong enough in the other selection criteria.
Still, not bad for someone doctors feared might never walk or talk.
Krista’s parents, Kathy Combs and husband Russell Pylkki, had to endure agonizing uncertainty in the hours after the birth of their only child on March 25, 1994. Krista was in distress the moment she entered the world at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, Calif., and was whisked away to the neonatal intensive care unit before Kathy even had a chance to cradle her in her arms.
A doctor came in later that day with the news that Krista might have a severe, permanent disability.
It failed to sink into the mind and heart of this first-time mom.
“I didn’t really realize what was going on,” Kathy said. “I was just happy she was still alive. It was kind of a strange time, being happy that I had a new daughter, but I couldn’t see her.”
Their hospital stay lasted two weeks, after which time Kathy and Russell set to work trying to figure out how to help their vulnerable daughter, who received a diagnosis of cerebral palsy (CP) a few days after birth.
They eventually moved to Minnesota, landing in St. Paul, where Kathy works as a professor of business economics at the University of St. Thomas, while Russell works as a chemist for Aspen Research in Maple Grove.
“We never questioned [God]” about why Krista was born with CP, Kathy said. “Just a positive attitude, if anything. I always felt like it’s my duty to do the best for her.”
Russell echoed his wife’s simple, practical approach: “Things happen. We’re not in paradise [here on earth]. You’ve got to deal with it.”
As they learned more about CP, they began to expand Krista’s horizons, even though she displayed a lot of outward apprehension.
“This is a girl who was quite shy,” Kathy said. “She used to hide behind me in front of people. And, she still doesn’t like to go through doors first. I always wanted to get her out in the world. . . . Fortunately, through a lot of therapy and just working on it herself, she’s really improved her ability to be out there in the world.”
The same is true of her track skills. Pastoors struggled with how to work with an athlete who has a disability. It was her first venture into what she calls the “paralympic world.” The former T-G track standout was approached by Krista two summers ago to hone her sprinting skills as she set her sights on international paralympic competition.
With encouragement from her mother, Betsy Pastoors, who works at T-G and had gotten to know Pylkki, Traci accepted the challenge.
“She’s wonderful,” Traci said. “I was a little hesitant how far I could push her and what I could do with her as far as workouts.”
She learned one simple lesson then that was powerfully reinforced this summer — Krista doesn’t complain and she never backs down from an increase in her training workload.
“I never heard the words ‘I can’t’ from her,” Pastoors said. “During a workout, I’d run with her, and I pushed her hard. I would ask, ‘Can you do one more [sprint]?’ It was always, ‘Yup.’ Every time.”
What Pastoors didn’t know was how much her pupil was feeling those workouts. Once, she asked Krista how hard a particular workout was, on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being extremely difficult.
Krista’s answer? Eleven.
It is that kind of spirit that makes T-G football coach and dean of students Jeff Ferguson one of her biggest fans. He has coached scores of state championship football players over the last decade, and he praises Krista like she is one of them.
“I love Krista’s attitude and ambition,” he said, noting that she was honored during halftime of a football game last season for her accomplishments. “Obviously she has demonstrated great resilience and determination, which are two of the traits we emphasize to our football players. In addition, she is a very gentle and caring person.”
Quiet but strong faith
Pay attention to that last part, as it may hold the key to her future, even more than her running skills.
Recently, she left for college at St. Scholastica in Duluth, where she will study exercise physiology and minor in Catholic studies. Eventually, she may trade her track uniform for a religious habit.
“I’m currently discerning the religious life,” she said. “I can’t really describe it, but there are some experiences I’ve had throughout the last year that brought me to this discernment journey in my life.
“I’ve talked to my parish priest [Father Paul Feela, pastor of Lumen Christi], and [Presentation] Sister Vicky Larson. She teaches [nursing] at St. Kate’s. She actually was the person who sparked the idea in my head. She spoke at one of the Masses at Lumen Christi.”
Such ambitions wouldn’t surprise those who know her well. Her quiet, but strong, faith is on display for anyone who cares to look.
“It was evident in the way she presented herself and treated the other athletes,” Traci Pastoors said. “She acted like a big sister to some of these [young paralympic] athletes, even though she was one of the youngest ones there [at meets].”
Perhaps, the most visible sign of Krista’s faith is what Pastoors sees around her neck every time the two work out together.
“She wears a gold cross and never takes it off, except for meet races,” Pastoors said. “Then, she gives it to me and I wear it while she races. Then, I give it right back to her after she crosses the finish line.”
Krista has a simple explanation for a ritual like this, having nothing to do with enhancing her performance.
“Faith is a huge part of my life,” she said. “I don’t know where I’d be without God. He’s always been there with me throughout my journey.”
This is precisely why people like Ferguson say the T-G community is as fortunate to have had her as she is to have had the community to support her throughout her high school years.
And, even though he has had to say goodbye to a delightful, exuberant student, he is excited about her future, which he believes will involve a trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the Paralympic Games in 2016.
“The sky’s the limit for her,” he said. “You have to have a dream first before it becomes a reality. Rio is Krista’s dream. I believe in her and know that she can do whatever she sets her mind to. Rio, here she comes!”
Mass for disabled is Sept. 9
- What: Archbishop’s Annual Mass for Persons with Disabilities
- When: 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 9. Sing-along begins at 2:30 p.m. Social and light refreshments will follow Mass.
- Where: St. Mary’s Chapel, St. Paul Seminary
- Celebrant: Bishop Lee Piché