Dr. Casey O’Donnell
Casey O’Donnell next to the Stay-Focused flag on the boat, 2018
Stay-Focused has always been proud to boast about its team of volunteers who work tirelessly to ensure each program is equally impactful. From our mentors to our founder himself, it is rare to find so many who are willing to run the New York City Marathon on behalf of the organization as a charity partner. I am honored to write about my dive buddy, Casey O’Donnell, our Chief Medical Doctor, who will be running the 26.2 miles this year on that notoriously cold and windy course.
At the end of 2003, when founder Roger Muller was planning to launch the first program, he connected with Dr. JenFu Cheng. JenFu was working at Children’s Specialized Hospital in New Jersey and is an accomplished Divemaster with an impressive background in working with children with disabilities. As Roger worked to take the organization from vision to reality, he knew the parents and guardians of participants would be more comfortable letting their teens take the trip to Cayman if a medical doctor was part of the team. In 2004, JenFu introduced us to his colleague, Casey, knowing he would be a terrific addition to the Stay-Focused team.
Ambassadors of the Environment program in the mangroves
As a physiatrist, O’Donnell’s focus is to assist persons with disabling conditions achieve their highest quality of life possible. “Being a former collegiate competitive swimmer, certified swimming instructor, and a SCUBA diver, I felt this was the perfect opportunity to combine my skills in the water with my medical training to help enhance the lives of teens with disabilities,” he states, reflecting on why he was drawn to the organization. While working as a resident-in-training, Casey joined us in the early days and, fortunately for us, with a significant amount of medical training still to go, he committed to being involved with Stay-Focused for the long haul.
As Casey describes it, “I think the most impactful thing I witness on each program is the excitement participants have when participating in a sport without use of their prosthetics or ambulatory assistive devices. It’s also notable to see how the program builds increased self-confidence among participants and inspires them to set higher goals.”
Kayaking with participant, Blake V.
A primary objective of the program is to foster our participants’ sense of independence and confidence. Part of the process involves learning to advocate for themselves, seek care when they need it, and being prepared to hop in the water and dive each day. I genuinely believe that would not occur without the support of medical professionals like Casey who donate their time to participate in our programs. Stay-Focused doctors are available 24/7 to review and discuss medical histories, provide treatment, check in with participants, and participate in all our activities. With his infectious enthusiasm, Casey helps put participants at ease during a program that often represents their first trip out of the country without a parent or guardian. And as a valued member of our team, Casey is always willing to crack a joke and be goofy with the rest of us.
Jill Moore and Casey O’Donnell after a dive
“Recreation is important for everyone, especially persons with disabilities, who may have fewer opportunities accessible to them. Recreational activities improve physical and mental health and are important in building confidence among those with disabilities. Being self-confident enables disabled teens to become more independent, successful, and happier in life.” Given his dedication to ensuring ongoing recreational opportunities for members of the disability community, Casey will be running his fourth marathon on November 7th, as a member of Stay-Focused’s Charity Partner team in this year’s 50th anniversary of the New York City Marathon. With his running mantra being “I am Superman, I can do anything,” we know Casey will be heading to race day feeling confident and ready to go. When we return to Cayman for Stay-Focused’s 19th year of programmatic activity, we will celebrate with a stop at O’Donnell’s favorite Caymanian restaurant, Sunshine Grill, which Casey is convinced has the best fish tacos in Cayman. I am proud I will be cheering on my dive buddy and friend as he embarks on his 26.2 run and look forward to sharing more years of diving with him, wrong-lyrics karaoke, and laughs.
We welcome your support and thank you for donating to Casey’s fund-raising campaign. The 2021 TCS New York City Marathon is our only fundraiser this year and all funds raised will help underwrite our programs in Grand Cayman in the summer of 2022. To donate to Casey’s efforts, please visit our partner page at:
The Finish Line is Just the Beginning
By: Mary Kate Callahan | Sr. Consultant, Global HRIS Transformation | Elite Paratriathlete
Published Jun 25, 2021
There is never a good time to close a chapter of life that has brought so much joy. But there is a time to trust in new beginnings, goals, and dreams. And for me, that is now.
I’m at the finish line of what has been an incredible 11 year chapter of my life. A chapter that has defined me as an athlete but more importantly a chapter that has shaped me into the person that so many know today. A chapter that has been an accumulation of thousands of miles running and biking, hundreds of training hours, plenty of 5am swims fueled by too much caffeine, many tears, numerous flat tires, unforgettable podium finishes wearing the USA uniform, but most importantly a community of people that have stood behind me through it all.
This chapter was about more than what I was able to accomplish as an athlete. For me, it will be defined by who I was and what I learned during that time.
The identity of being an athlete is something I cherish. It’s the identity that I’m most proud of. The lessons you learn while being athlete extend well beyond training and competing. As this chapter comes to a close, I’ve taken the time to reflect back on each step that has brought me to today.
I was the 6 year old who threw her hands in the air and waved to the crowd of teammates and parents before every single race.
I’m proud of her because it taught me how to never take life too serious. If you’re going to work hard – make sure you’re having fun too.
I was the 10 year old who played wheelchair basketball on a team with all boys. I may not have been the highest scoring athlete on the court but I proudly rolled onto the court in my pink wheelchair, leveraged my speed and grit, and played one heck of a game of defense – even if it meant getting fouled out of plenty of games 🙂
I’m proud of her because it taught me how to be fierce. It didn’t matter who you were, how old you were, or what your abilities were. It was up to you to work hard and show up for yourself and others.
I was the 15 year old who was looked straight in the eyes and told she wasn’t an athlete due to her disability. I knew I never want to hear those words ever again but more importantly- I didn’t want another person hear those words again. I advocated for equal opportunity within the legal system. I saw my role as an athlete expand way beyond the pool.
I’m proud of her because it taught me how important it is to advocate for yourself and others. Your voice is one of the most powerful tools you will ever have.
I was the 17 year old who made her first World Championship team. I traveled to New Zealand for my very first international race that I didn’t even finish due to a mechanical issue on my bike half way through the race. I was crushed. But it was also in that moment that I knew I wanted to continue to pursue an elite racing career.
I’m proud of her because it taught me that the failures in life are usually what we learn from most. You will get knocked down plenty of times in life but those will be the moments that fuel you for the next time.
I was the 20 something year old girl who was determined to make it all work. I experienced my first international podiums, explored the world by racing and training across it, spent training camps studying for finals, graduated college, and realized how its ok to be out of balance when you’re chasing goals that are important to you.
I’m proud of her because it taught me that if something is important to you there is always enough time in the day. Not all paths will look the same but if it makes you happy – that is all that matters.
Today, I’m the 26 year old who is beyond grateful for what the last 11 years have taught me. I told myself when I started my elite racing career 11 years ago that when it all ended I wanted to look back being able to answer these 3 things:
Did I try my absolutely best no matter what cards were handed to me each day? Did I show up for people and help bring out the best in them when I had the chance? And did I do all of this while having fun?
Today, the end is here and all I can do is smile. Not all days were pretty but every single second was worth it.
I’m walking away from this elite racing career with the same amount of joy I had for it when I started. And because of that – I won’t be going too far. I’m eager to have more time tackle new mountains (literally), chase new goals, and most importantly help others tap into their own potential and find their own starting line.
It’s time for me to cross this finish line and help the next generation soar.
And I can’t wait.
Emma Albert: Rolling past every obstacle in her way
By: Kristi Lee Neuberger | Manhattan
PUBLISHED 2:21 PM ET Jun. 01, 2021
“No matter what a child’s disability is, if they would like to participate in sport, they should be given that opportunity.”
That’s the message Beacon High School Senior Emma Albert would like the world to know.
“Give us a chance and the proper accessibility and we can accomplish most anything,” she added.
“I hope people see strength and resilience, as well as independence. I am used to overcoming obstacles and will work even harder to achieve my goals,” Albert said.
Albert’s athletic career started with sled hockey, playing for the New York Sled Rangers for six years. She loved being part of a team of individuals who weren’t letting their disabilities slow them down. But it wasn’t until she learned about wheelchair racing that Albert discovered her true calling.
“Once I connected with the team at New York Road Runners, and learned how to train for the sport of Wheelchair Racing, I was hooked,” Albert said.
The young athlete quickly became involved in more than just racing with New York Road Runners, a non-profit focused on inspiring individuals through running. As an intern and volunteer, Albert assisted all age groups and handled coordinating transportation for professional athletes. Giving back to the community that had brought her joy was one of the many reasons why Albert says she continued to volunteer. She also participates in the Stay-Focused adaptive scuba diving lessons, once again showing that children of all abilities can do anything they set their minds to.
“It was a life-changing experience, in a beautiful, world-class diving location. Given how much I learned and enjoyed this incredible opportunity, I knew it was my job to help as many other disabled kids experience this amazing underwater environment. It was not only beautiful, but very empowering for a disabled teen to master scuba diving,” Albert remarked.
Albert might have found her place teaching kids scuba diving, however finding a spot on the Beacon High School track team wasn’t an easy transition. Albert and her family had to figure out busing and accessible accommodations in order to make competing a reality. After a few years of arranging, everything was in place, just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic to shut down all public high school sports in New York City. It was a setback for Albert, losing not only her sport but also her senior year experience.
“It took away most of the traditional social and fun elements you normally associate with your last year of high school. I do, however, have a close-knit group of friends who I tried to get together with a lot more as we slowly started to recover from Covid. This really helped all of us just to be able to spend time together in person,” Albert commented.
She can’t wait for the chance to get back on the track.
“To me, racing is speed, freedom, and feeling empowered,” Albert said.
Whether it’s in her community or at school, Albert leads by example – letting few things get in her way. She said one of the many secrets to her success is time management which allows her to stay on top of her school assignments while still having plenty of time to participate in what matters most; raising a voice for rights for the disabled. Albert was selected as a global ambassador for the Vascular Birthmark Foundation, an organization that focuses on helping people who were born with both painful and disfiguring birthmarks find support and medical resources.
“Give us a chance and the proper accessibility and we can accomplish most anything,” she said.
Albert will be attending Northeastern University where she plans to study Public Health.