Boston bombing victim battled back and found new life on the court

by: Cindy Shmerler | December 11, 2016

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Three years after a catastrophic attack, Kaitlynn Cates used her athletic determination to recover. (Merrily Cassidy/Cape Cod Times)

It’s been more than 35 years since Ronald Reagan stated, during his first inaugural address, “Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes, they just don’t know where to look.” We discovered heroes in every state, starting with the determined 69-year-old who won a match at an ITF Pro Circuit event earlier this year in the Alabama town of Pelham, and culminating with the coach who has overcome multiple sclerosis to build a winning program at the University of Wyoming. Their compelling stories of courage, perseverance and achievement demonstrate that the message delivered by our 40th President rings as true today as it did then.

Kaitlynn Cates clutched the four roses in her clammy hand, trying hard not to let them wither. As she rounded the corner from Hereford Street onto Newbury, somewhere between mile 26 and 26.2, Cates didn’t slow down as she grabbed the flowers from her friend, Arie, and help them upright. She was on a mission—in fact, several of them.

Suddenly, just short of the finish line at the 2015 Boston Marathon, Cates—ignoring the chunk of her right calf that had to be re-built and re-purposed following a bomb attack two years earlier--leaned down and placed the roses, representing four victims of the 2013 attack, by a lamppost on the side of the curb where the first bomb had exploded. Then she threw up her arms and tore down Boylston Street, passed dozens of high-flying flags representing multi-national marathon participants, and crossed the finish line, her friends and fans chanting “Kaitlynn Strong” while the PA announcer trumpeted her as a survivor.

“I felt so privileged to be running that day,” says Cates, now 28 and a real-estate agent whose office is just a stone’s throw from the site of the Boston Marathon bombing. “And I wanted to make sure [that] those who weren’t as fortunate as me to make it on that horrific day were remembered and honored.”

Running a marathon was not in Cates’ life plan, though at some point it did join her “bucket list.” Tennis was, and is, her real passion. Growing up in Hawaii and Connecticut, she excelled in team sports like soccer, volleyball and basketball. She would also test her endurance by doing 100 squats a day. Then, a week before high-school tennis tryouts began, she borrowed a racquet from a friend and promptly made the varsity team, one of only two freshmen to be selected.

Cates went on to play tennis at Springfield College and then at Suffolk University in Boston, where she captained the team and played No. 1 singles and doubles her junior year. She went undefeated in doubles and was named to the all-conference team.

“Kaitlynn’s athleticism and tenacity are everything,” says Isaac Stahl, who coached Cates at Suffolk and is now head coach at Mount Ida College. “She had a nothing serve [and] basically had to start each point from zero, but she was monstrous from the net. She’d dare you to hit through her, and then hit an overhead from anywhere on the court.

“…Kaitlynn’s game was always more athletic than tennis. She does the twist so well. Like [John] McEnroe, she plays with her body more than her arm. But, mostly, she did every drill 110 percent. When we did the run-the-lines competition, you always wanted to be on whatever team Kaitlynn was on.”

While in Boston, Cates had always cherished Patriots’ Day, the third Monday in April, dedicated to commemorating the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord that kicked off the American Revolutionary War in 1775. Bostonians celebrate the day in raucous style and gather for the biggest part of all, the Boston Marathon, a race for both elite and everyday runners that has coursed through both the city and countryside every year since 1897.

“Patriots’ Day is epic,” says Cates, who had watched the marathon before but had never stood at the finish line when the top runners were en route. “There really is no day like it. The whole city is positive.”

On April 15, 2013, Cates and her then-boyfriend, Leo Fonseca, decided to take an extended lunch break and watch a family she used to babysit for finish the race. Cates arrived early, watched the elite runners come through, and met up with Fonseca. Knowing they had time before her friends would arrive, the couple decided to grab lunch.

By the time they rushed back to their spot on Boylston between Exeter and Dartmouth Streets, Cates and Fonseca were toward the back of a group of spectators as more runners were edging toward the finish line. A little girl sat on top of her fathers’ shoulders, prompting Cates to ask Fonseca to switch places so she could see better. Within seconds, they heard an overwhelming sound coming from right behind them.

“I remember three things from that moment,” says Fonseca. “One, I remember a really loud noise, nothing quite that loud in my life. (He is still hearing-impaired due to the blast.) Two, I remember the smell. I knew at the least it was fireworks, but then I thought it was an explosive. And three, I remember the panic. Kaitlynn and I were suddenly pretty far apart. I knew I had to find her.”

Cates and Fonseca were blown four feet apart by the blast. They were both under separate piles of people. Unaware that part of her right calf had been blown off by the explosion, Cates tried to get up, even trying to crawl over glass, but couldn’t. Fonseca found her immediately and threw his body over hers, pinning her back onto the ground.

“Maybe I watch too much TV,” he says, “but somehow I knew that if there was one bomb there was probably another one.”

He was right, though the second bomb exploded eight blocks away.

By then, Fonseca, who couldn’t hear Cates screaming but had seen the damage to her leg, instinctively grabbed a blanket she had brought to the race and used it as a tourniquet, shoving dangling tendons and skin back inside the mangled limb. All the while, Cates kept begging him to get her out of there.

As it happened, Fonseca’s car was parked in an alleyway, just two blocks from the finish line. He picked up Cates and sprinted away from the mayhem, briefly leaving her on the ground while he pushed police barricades out of the way so he could move his car. By that time, as hordes of panicked runners and spectators darted past her, Cates realized she was in trouble.

“My right lower jean was blown off,” she says, her voice rising slightly even three years later. “But my cell phone was still in my right back pocket. All others phones were disengaged, but somehow mine worked. So, while lying on the ground, I called my little sister, Lindsay, told her I was in a bombing and that I wasn’t sure I was going to make it, and to tell everybody I love them. That phone call was the hardest moment.”

With Cates’ leg perched on the dashboard, Fonseca drove the wrong way down one-way streets en route to Massachusetts General Hospital. They arrived so quickly that when Fonseca pulled in front of the emergency room door and Cates hollered that she was a bombing victim, emergency personnel responded, “What bomb?”

Cates would spend 10 days in the hospital as doctors tried to close her wounds, graft skin on her leg and fill up space ripped away by the bomb with muscle-wrapped collagen. All told, she would undergo some nine surgeries over a 10-month stretch.

“The mental part of being an athlete is what gets you through,” says Cates, whose motor nerves regenerated but her sensory nerves did not, resulting in a permanent loss of feeling in her lower right leg.  “My whole goal was to use tennis as my therapy. Tennis was the only thing that gave me the belief that I was alive. I never loved anything like it.”

By September 2014, Cates was back on the tennis court, helping teach a clinic for local high-school students. Today she plays three to four days a week, helps Stahl as a volunteer assistant coach at Mount Ida College and plays on the 4.0 interclub team for the historic Longwood Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill, MA. She says that despite the trauma to her body, her mobility and movement are better than ever.

Two years after the bombing, Cates and Stahl ran the race together, Stahl fading back at mile 22 so that Cates could sprint ahead, after setting down those four flowers, and break the five-hour goal she had set for herself. She finished in 4:44.

Cates is a shining example of perseverance and how far a positive attitude can take you. She has an expression she like to repeat: “If you’re going to do something, give it 100 percent. Do it all the way.”

Without question, Cates has come all the way back. 

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