Archdeacon: Nothing stops marathoner Holly Koester

FAIRBORN — It was during the fourth Air Force Marathon — September 16, 2000 — that Colonel Mike Nostrand learned something about her that, in the years to come, the rest of the racing world has come to realize, as well:

Nothing stops Holly Koester.

Koester, a retired U.S. Army captain who’d been paralyzed in an auto accident as she and her unit were gearing up to deploy in Operation Desert Storm a decade earlier, was competing in a racing chair when she went over a rumble strip early in the 26.2-mile marathon and a front tire flattened on the chair.

Soon the spokes were flying out of the wheel like it was a game of pick-up sticks.

“I’m like six miles into the race and the spokes suddenly go ‘pop, pop, pop…pop!’” Koester recalled. “There were only three or four spokes left and I had to sort of hop the wheel up and bang it down, just so I could move forward.

“I guess it was kind of funny. Some of my friends in the race said they could hear me banging and pounding along.”

Nostrand heard her, too, and at the time he was struggling, as well.

Three weeks earlier at a marathon in Omaha, Nebraska, he had sprained his ankle.

For the Air Force Marathon, he was part of a four-man team that counted on him, but at the start of the race everyone pretty much counted him out.

He had stayed at the hotel on Wright Patterson AFB the night before the race and there had been a power outage. When he woke up, the race was about to begin. By the time he got to the starting line, he was 37 minutes behind the field.

Fueled by panic, adrenaline, and grit, he managed to catch and pass his teammates, but at mile 22 his ankle was giving out.

“It got to the point where I was saying to myself, ‘Oh Man, there’s no way I’m going to finish. I just need to find a place to pull off.’

“That’s when I came across Holly. She was in that chair and the wheel had disintegrated. You could hear the rim scraping the concrete, but she was like, ‘I’m not giving up!’ She was determined to continue.

“And I thought, ‘If that girl can do that, what am I complaining about?’

“She inspired me and when I passed her all I could do was pat her on the shoulder and say, ‘Keep going, you’re almost there.’

I used those same words, and the vision of her, to lift me and I was able to finish.”

After the race, Nostrand wrote the director to find out her name and, in Holly’s words, “he sent me a really, really nice letter and then ended up calling me.”

The two became friends and over the years would see each other at races until Nostrand – who’s now retired from the service and lives outside Washington D.C. —stopped racing after the 2016 Air Force Marathon to care for his wife, who has health issues.

He and Holly stay in touch though.

“She’s just a wonderful friend,” he said. “She’s inspired so many people with her positive attitude. And I’m with her in spirit every time she races.”

The 63-year-old Koester has competed in every Air Force Marathon but one – in 2006 – when she opted to take part in the Maui Marathon to help in her quest to become the first wheelchair racer to complete a marathon in all 50 states.

She joined the 50 States Marathon Club in 2008 and now she’s about three-fourths of the way through competing in all 50 states again – this time with a hand cycle.

With her completion of this year’s Air Force Marathon, she’ll have done “174 or 175″ total marathons since her first one in Columbus in 1995. That she isn’t quite sure of the total off the top of her head was understandable. They’ve come at a fast and furious pace recently.

In the spring, she teamed up with her twin sister Joy – a retired Army Colonel who lives outside Indianapolis – to do one of the Mainly Marathons challenges, this one consisting of 6 marathons in 6 Northeastern states in 6 days.

Next spring, she and Joy plan to tackle a similar challenge in the South with 7 marathons in 7 states in 7 days.

The back-to-back marathons nor that flat tire have been her toughest challenges as a wheelchair racer, Koester said.

That distinction came at the grueling 2005 Mount Rushmore Marathon.

The last leg of that race included a steep upward climb over wet, soft gravel along the Mickelson Trail to the Crazy House Memorial in South Dakota.

“I had to switch to my regular wheelchair because I thought my race chair was going to flip over backwards,” she said.

She was cold and aching, but she refused to surrender. She would finish in last place — in 10 hours and 9 minutes, 6 ½ hours behind the winner —but no racer that day was more celebrated.

An Associated Press account of her finish painted the scene:

“Come on Captain, push! Let’s go Army! Hoorah!” cheered C.J. Barnes, her caretaker and friend who first met her at the Cleveland VA Center and is still her roommate and aide today.

The course had been so challenging for some able-bodied runners that they had used walkers to finish.

As Koester crossed the finish line, the AP reported the spectators who were left cheered wildly and some people were reduced to tears.

Koester is a crowd favorite at the Air Force Marathon, as well, but unlike Rushmore, she’s usually a winner here. She’s topped her division in all but one of her 23 local races.

“The Air Force Marathon and the Marine Corps Marathon are my two favorite races,” she said. “I keep doing them over and over because they are patriotic and have real meaning. It’s where I’m with my brothers and sisters in the military.”

Best of all, she said she gets to experience it with her own family, as well.

As she does the marathon, Joy does the half marathon and now, so does their nephew Jared. Several other family members are often in the crowd, as are many friends.

This year, even her young service dog, Flare – and before that it was her longtime charcoal lab, Glory, a crowd favorite who passed away at age 13 in 2018 – will be at the finish line waiting for her.

“I just really like coming here and racing, there’s just so much support,” she said. “And coming down through the planes at the end, that’s just an awesome feeling.”

An inspiration

Koester grew up in Buffalo.

Although she and Joy are identical twins, their make-up differs some, she said:

“She’s more talented than me, but I’m a little more talkative, a little more dominant.”

The pair were good high school athletes and played college volleyball at Fredonia State in New York.

While in college they became involved in ROTC to help pay for their schooling and set up an opportunity upon graduation.

“Holly and I always did things together and she was going into the Army – she went to Airborne school – and I didn’t want to get left behind,” Joy said.

Of the three other Koester kids, two would also join the service: A younger sister became a Marine and a younger brother went into the Navy.

On the night of August 11, 1990, Holly —who was stationed in Huntsville, Alabama before heading to the Persian Gulf War — was in an accident on a temporary road. She was ejected through the moonroof of her Bronco II and her T-7 vertebra was crushed, leaving her legs paralyzed.

At first, she was in denial.

“I was on the Stryker frame (special bed for paraplegics) and they were getting ready to put me in a plane to come up to the Cleveland VA — which was the closet spinal cord hospital for my family — and I remember telling the commander I was going to be back.

“The doctor had told me I’d never walk again, but I’d seen too many movies where the person goes, ‘I’ll walk again! I’ll walk!’”

She said she refused to accept her diagnosis for about four months, but ended up getting inspiration from where she least expected it.

“One thing that made a big difference was the guy in the hospital bed next to hers,” Joy said. “He was a quadriplegic and had to blow through a tube to move his wheelchair. He always used to come in and bump her and try to give her encouragement.

“We looked at it, as bad as her injury was, it could have been a lot worse. She still had use of her hands and, being an athlete, she could still compete, just in a different way.

“That was huge to for her to continue her active lifestyle.”

Holly agreed: “As soon as I’d been able to get in a chair, my rec therapist — he knew I’d been an athlete — he began training me. He said, ‘You’ve got to compete at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.”

It was a real eye-opener for her she said:

“You always think of being in a wheelchair as a sign of weakness, but, man, after going to those Games (in 1991) and competing and seeing all the other veterans laughing and smiling and goofing around, I realized I had so many opportunities to do things I thought I couldn’t.”

She’s been deeply involved in the Buckeye Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America for more than a quarter century, and now not only serves as a PVA officer, but is a mentor and an inspiration to others.

In 2008 she was pictured on the front of Cheerios boxes for her wheelchair sporting exploits. Eight years later – after winning six medals at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, she was honored by the Ohio House of Representatives. A year after that she was inducted into the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame.

She’s been a substitute teacher at the elementary and middle school level since she began competing at the Air Force Marathon.

Joy said other teachers like it when Holly takes over their classes because their students get valuable, first-hand lessons about taking on life’s challenges.

And it doesn’t take long, she said, before students start seeing her for who she really is rather than focusing on the chair or her limitations.

“She’s been such an inspirational to so many people,” Joy said as her voice filled with emotion. “Even to this day, I get choked up talking about it. It was real tough when all this happened, but she made the most of it.

“I am really, really proud of her.”

A blessing in some ways

Joy told how their 29-year-old nephew, who was born after Holly got hurt, was mesmerized when he came across an old photo of the two sisters running side by side in race in Indianapolis in the late 1980s.

“He’d never seen Holly with legs and being able to stand,” Joy said quietly. “He didn’t realize the athlete she was before this.”

Holly touched on that the other day when we spoke:

“Somebody asked me one time, ‘If they’d be able to heal you and you’d be able to walk again, would you want that now?’

“And I said, ‘I’d love to be able to walk again. But I don’t know if I would have been able to do as many things standing up as I’ve been able to do sitting down.’

“In some ways it’s been kind of a blessing. I know I never would have been introduced to and been able to do the things I have, had I not been in a chair.

“It helped because I wanted to see what was out there. I wasn’t always sure I could do something, but I took the attitude, ‘Boy. I sure would like to try.’”

And nothing has stopped Holly Koester.

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