the titanium woman
Wade Denniston | Courtesy
The before and after of distance runner Katie Izzo’s life-changing injury.
The titanium rod inside Katie Izzo’s leg is a reminder to never give up on something you love.
More than two years ago, the Cal Poly Track and Cross Country senior’s promising career was halted in a sudden moment of agony. It happened during a race that was like any other. A step, a step. But then, a snap.
That life-changing moment marked the beginning of Izzo’s long journey in rediscovering her passion for running.
Izzo admits her innate love for running may have stemmed from her mother, a standout hurdler and sprinter in high school. The Torrance, Calif. native smiled as she recalled racing against her cousins as a child.
“I have mostly boy cousins and I would always beat them,” Izzo said. “I love to compete, it’s just something I was born with.”
That natural and rare passion for the sport began to materialize into an impressive record during Izzo’s senior year at Los Alamitos High School. Among numerous accolades, Izzo clocked a 1,600m medley relay performance of three minutes and 58 seconds at the Arcadia Invitational — good enough for No.1 in the nation at the time.
And yet, the top running prospect said she took just one official college visit. Since Izzo’s mother is a Cal Poly alumna, she grew up visiting San Luis Obispo frequently.
“Obviously [San Luis Obispo] is an amazing college town with beautiful trails, but that family vibe from the team, everyone just made me feel so welcome,” Izzo said. “Right after the official visit was over, and even during it, I knew that it was Cal Poly.”
Izzo knew she had found her new home. However, she had no idea of the hardship that was to follow.
Wade Denniston | Courtesy
Breaking the pace
As just one of two freshmen who traveled during the Cross Country season, Izzo described her first year at Cal Poly as a special time in her life and running career.
In her first collegiate season, Izzo registered a crucial ninth place finish at the Big West Championships with a 6k time of 20 minutes and 59 seconds. The additional points helped propel the Mustangs over UC Santa Barbara to claim the 2015 Big West title.
Izzo’s momentum snowballed into a record-setting Track and Field season. In the 1,500m, Izzo won the seventh heat of the Stanford Invitational, broke the five-year standing meet record in the Cal Poly ShareSLO Invitational and secured the tenth-fastest time in program history.
“I guess I used my success from high school, I wanted to continue that,” Izzo said. “I loved Cal Poly so much and it felt so right. I was just running for the love of it.”
Izzo followed up by taking home the Big West Championship in the 5k. It was the second conference title she had acquired in her first year as a Mustang.
Izzo capped the season with a 25th-place finish at the NCAA West Regionals, a meet she would come to have an incredibly personal relationship with.
“It feels like a lifetime ago, with all the injuries and being out for two years,” Izzo said. “We always look back at it and kind of laugh because it was such a cool, funny experience.”
The success Izzo obtained in her collegiate debut was rare for a freshman, and it only continued into her sophomore year.
Cal Poly Athletics | Courtesy
Izzo kicked off the following season with a fifth-place 5k performance of 18 minutes and one second at the Lagoon Open in Santa Barbara. By the end of Cross Country season, Izzo and the Mustangs were seemingly unstoppable. The team went on to win a second consecutive Big West Championship. Izzo clocked a ninth place individual finish in route to the title victory.
“We were all on this amazing high,” Izzo said. “But after that race, I could barely walk.”
Izzo showed no signs of slowing down. That was, until she could no longer run.
She was unaware of it at the time, but Izzo had sustained a stress fracture while in Hawai’i. Two weeks later, she was back on the starting line at the NCAA West Regionals at Hornet Stadium on Nov. 11, 2016.
Women’s Cross Country head coach Priscilla Bayley described what happened next as “a freak accident.” During the middle of the race, Izzo fell to the ground and began screaming. Her tibia and fibula both snapped.
“No one was on the course at the time,” Izzo said. “[My leg] was deformed and everything … I was completely numb to any pain.”
Izzo was immediately rushed to the hospital. For her leg to heal correctly, doctors inserted a 12-inch titanium rod into Izzo’s tibia bone.
Izzo’s standout career at Cal Poly had nearly just begun. And yet, it came to a screeching halt in one of the worst ways imaginable.
A PASSION RENEWED
Understandably, Izzo said she needed time to process her running career after the injury. For an athlete to recover from an injury is one thing. It happens often. Recovering from an injury as intense as Izzo’s is an entirely different story.
Izzo used a medical redshirt for the rest of the season as she healed. Izzo’s redshirt status continued through her junior year.
“I needed that [time] to really find my love and passion for running again,” Izzo said. “There were points where I wondered if I would be able to run the same again.”
While Izzo admits she experienced moments of doubt, she also recognized the “fire” to compete was still within her. Izzo said she relied on faith and trusted her body’s ability to recover during this time. Izzo also pointed out the immense amount of support she received from family and friends in the offseason.
Former Cal Poly Cross Country and Track member Maddie McDonald was Izzo’s teammate from 2015-2018 and was at Hornet Stadium when the injury occurred.
According to McDonald, stress fractures for runners are common among female athletes.
“I think she felt like she had something to prove, and not only for herself,” McDonald said. “Once you get [a stress fracture], it’s always hanging over your head and there is some fear and paranoia that you’ll get another. Katie was able to push through hers … to prove to the whole running community that it was possible.”
Izzo knew there was more for her to accomplish, according to McDonald.
“She wasn’t ready to just bow down,” McDonald said.
Izzo’s moments of doubt all but disappeared when she began cross country training for the 2018 season, nearly two years after her injury.
“As terrible as that whole experience was, it made me the runner that I am and the person that I am today,” Izzo said. “I think it all happens for a reason.”
Wade Denniston | Courtesy
BACK ON TRACK
Now a senior, Izzo made her official return to competition in the Covert Classic and Lagoon Open in September of 2018. Izzo went on to compete in two 6k events before the Mustangs’ Big West Championship appearance.
In a showing of familiarity, Izzo helped lead the Mustangs to a Big West Championship for the third time in her career after placing third individually.
Needless to say, Izzo was back.
However, the Mustangs were set to compete in the NCAA West Regionals less than two weeks later. It would be Izzo’s first return to the West Regionals meet since her life-changing injury. As if the meet was not daunting enough, the venue was Hornet Stadium — the same course Izzo had broken her leg on.
“I remember going through warmups and it was something that all of us knew and had in our minds, but no one really wanted to say what it was,” McDonald said. “For a lot of people, going back to something so traumatic as that would be really scary.”
“I knew something special was going to happen at that race.”
And yet, Izzo could not be more excited to return to Hornet Stadium.
“Before the race, seeing the exact spot that I fell and didn’t finish … I knew something special was going to happen at that race because I had so much fire in me to redeem myself and everything I had gone through,” Izzo said.
In what she described as a dream come true, Izzo placed 22nd in the West Regional meet with a 6k time of 20 minutes and 14 seconds. With the finish, Izzo secured the last individual berth to the NCAA Championships in Madison, Wisconsin.
“It was like my fairytale ending, to finally be healthy and happy,” Izzo said. “I was just really proud of myself and I’m thankful for everyone who had helped me get back to that point.”
Wade Denniston | Courtesy
McDonald said she still gets chills when talking about Izzo’s performance at the West Regionals.
“Everyone that was there, her competitors, were rooting for her,” McDonald said. “And that’s the kind of person that Katie is. She sparks inspiration not only in her team, but she also has the support of everyone in the running community.”
Since then, Izzo has continued to perform at a high level as her time at Cal Poly comes to a close. Izzo registered an 82nd-place finish in the NCAA Championships with a time of 20 minutes and 58 seconds.
“I just felt like, ‘I made it,’” Izzo said. “Because you’re with all these amazing runners that you always look up to and now you’re a part of the group.”
Izzo will continue her running career as a graduate student at the University of Arkansas. However, before Izzo’s final meet of the year, she told Mustang News she wanted to cross the finish line knowing she gave everything she had.
“I want to have my best race for my Papa, who passed away this March,” Izzo said. “He was always my No. 1 fan and loved watching me compete. I feel like he’s been with me in spirit this season.”
The distance runner ended her Mustang career with a 5k time of 16 minutes and eight seconds — a new personal record.
The distance runner’s PR was set at none other than Hornet Stadium, the track that had once held one of her worst memories. Through her resilience, Izzo made it the site of some of her greatest achievements.
Now, every time Izzo steps foot on any starting line, she said she feels fearless.
“That does not surprise me for a second, it just makes me smile,” McDonald said. “That girl is fearless.”