NEW BRITAIN - When New Britain native Sue Kassey traveled more than 8,000 miles to compete in the World Police and Fire Games in Chengdu, China, her motives were to represent her police department at UConn, her native state of Connecticut and the United States as a whole.
By the time Kassey adjusted to the drastic time zone change after arriving in Chengdu earlier this month, her motivations to win her track and field events quickly changed.
Back in the United States, Kassey’s brother Mark had passed away after a long battle with illness at the age of 62. Devastated, Kassey allowed herself to grieve while trying to fight off feelings of powerlessness as she mourned from the other side of the world.
After mulling over the option of hopping on a return flight to New Britain, Kassey decided to stay in Chengdu and accomplish her goal of winning her three events. Suddenly, her purpose for competing had taken on a new meaning.
“This meet was special to begin with,” Kassey said. “Ultimately, when my brother passed, it was about doing it for him. He wouldn't have wanted me to leave, come home and abandon what I'd been training for. Once I learned of my brother's passing, I knew I had to focus on my track, because there was nothing I could do from China. My purpose was to represent and I stuck it out and competed.”
So Kassey stayed, competing in the 100 meter, the long jump and shot put, and walked away from those events with a trio of gold medals. Kassey found herself competing against athletes in their 40s, but at the end of each her events, she stood atop the podium, with gold medals around her neck and clenched between her teeth.
“All the training and preparing I did, all the sacrifices I made through the year and being on the track for countless hours instead of going out with friends, it paid off,” Kassey said. “But when I found out my brother passed, I knew it wasn't about me anymore.”
Kassey celebrated her triumphs in Chengdu, but given what was going on back home, she described the experience as ‘bittersweet.’ Clashing feelings of celebration and grief wore her down at times, but when thinking about the new meaning that her competition had taken on, there was no conflict.
“Ultimately, I did this for my brother,” Kassey said.
With her brother in her heart, Kassey took gold in the 100 meter despite entering the Police and Fire Games with only two years of experience in the event, compared to a lifetime in the long jump and shot put. With a heightened sense of motivation, Kassey far exceeded her own expectations in the 100 meter and bested her personal best by a half second.
“The whole thing was fresh for me,” Kassey said of the 100 meter. “I think I held my own pretty good. I really surprised myself. My long jump and 100 meter coach was ecstatic when she found out how I did.”
Kassey’s golden trio came despite a number of obstacles, some larger than others. The death of her brother presented an obvious hurdle, both mentally and emotionally. There were also the drastic time zone and culture changes, and the unexpected struggle to find food that agreed with her usual diet.
“It was definitely different,” Kassey said. “I had a hard time finding things to eat because I'm not a hot and spicy person, and that's the culture there. It's not just a little spicy like mild buffalo wings. I primarily lived on bland rice and noodles and chicken.”
Kassey may have lived on a shortage of food variety, but she was filled with resolve, and a vision of why she was there. She wished the circumstances were different, but given the situation, she was right where she needed to be.
“It was very emotional,” Kassey said. “Mentally, I had to just buckle down and grab the bull by the horns. It was tough, but for me the track gives me such a Zen-like feeling, and it ultimately paid off.”
It was a tough decision for Kassey, but in the end, she felt the best way to honor her brother was by doing what she loved, and accomplishing a dream in his honor.
“I'll never get the chance to do this again,” Kassey said. “It was the chance of a lifetime, and that's why I did this.”
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or firstname.lastname@example.org