JEFFERSON — Katie Petro is always cheering for
Whether it’s for one of her Jefferson swim teammates or just anyone that is learning to overcome some sort of difficulty in life, the Falcons senior captain is always looking to uplift and inspire in any way she can.
But just knowing her and what she has worked to overcome in her own life is plenty of inspiration on its own. Petro suffers from Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI), also known as brittle bone disease. Her condition is described by the OI Foundation as a genetic bone disorder characterized by fragile bones that break easily. It goes on to explain that bones are made imperfectly from the beginning of life and that a person with the disorder is affected throughout his or her entire lifetime.
Having dealt with it for 10 years, Petro has well educated herself on the subject.
“Basically, a genetic mutation,” she said. “The calcium in my body …. Once it produces a certain amount, it’s done. That causes my bones to be very brittle, they can break with very little impact.”
But it doesn’t stop there.
“It can also affect the heart,” Petro said. “The aorta valves can thicken prematurely. It affects the hearing, the eyesight, everything. It’s definitely a disease that doesn’t hold back.”
Petro hasn’t held back, though, even if it means she can’t run, jump, play contact sports, ice skate or even ride a bike. Even though she deals daily with joint pain, arthritis and other unpleasantries, including the constant reality that a sudden impact from a slip or fall could be devastating, Petro has refused to let OI define who she is.
“It’s not everything about me,” Petro said. “My friends, they don’t see me as the kid with some weird disease. They see me as just another teenager, which is what I love.”
But the fact is, she’s hardly “just another teenager.” Instead, she is someone who has taken an unfortunate situation and used it to be an example to others about the ability to overcome any obstacle.
“A lot of people in the world, when they’re dealing with something, they want to use it as a crutch,” Petro said. “I didn’t want to be one of those people. I spin it around and use it to my advantage. I’ve turned it around, I’ve made it a positive, that’s why I do some of the things, to show people that I can take this horrible thing and still make a difference.”
Petro started swimming at the Ashtabula YMCA shortly after her diagnosis. Her doctors recommended cardiovascular activities and swimming was the perfect choice.
But starting out, she wasn’t competitive. Petro often got what her mom, AJ said she referred to as “pity claps,” ovations earned from the spectators just for finishing the race.
“As much as she loved swimming, it wasn’t something she was just naturally good at,” AJ Petro said. “She wasn’t always at the top of the pack, she was usually at the back of it.”
Finishing last on a consistent basis only motivated Petro to continue working.
“It would have been easy to quit,” she said. “I had the perfect excuse to do so. But then I’ve always loved the underdog. I was the underdog. I took that mentality.”
“That says a lot about her character,” AJ added. “A lot of people, if they’re not good at something, especially sports, you tend to give up. But she just had such a love, such a passion for swimming, that she had it engrained in her mind to stick with it and keep getting better times.”
She’s no longer the underdog. At the all-county meet two weeks ago, she finished first the 500 freestyle (her marquee event) in 6:23.82. Later, Petro took fourth at the All-American Conference meet.
Her times have also been fast enough to earn her a Division II college scholarship to attend Notre Dame College in Euclid in the fall.
Winning events and earning scholarships is part of what swimming has allowed her to do, but she also uses the sport to raise funds and awareness for the disease she has.
Petro has made two open water swims. In 2016, she went from Walnut Beach in Ashtabula to the mouth of the Grand River (near the Perry Power Plant), about 25 miles. Prior, Petro swam from Long Point, Ontario about 14 miles back into US waters.
Both swims went to support “Katie’s Courage,” her own non-profit organization that supports the OI Foundation.
“I want to make an impact on the world,” Petro said. “I love making a difference in any way possible, that’s what I want people to know about me. I love where I’m from and I love being able to help others.”
More information about Petro and her work for OI can be found at KatiesCourage.com or on her Facebook page Katie’s Courage.