At first glance, Carol McKinley appears to be just like any other fitness instructor. At the Hardin County Family YMCA in Kenton, Ohio, where she teaches yoga, Pilates and strength-training classes, the 61-year-old constantly inspires students with her contagious energy and vivacious spirit. Meeting her, you would never suspect that she is overcoming the odds, having been born with a disability.
Carol, who also works as a second grade teacher, has cerebral palsy (CP), a neurological disorder that affects muscle movement and balance. Symptoms of CP occur during infancy or early childhood and commonly include stiff muscles, uncontrollable movements, poor balance and coordination, or a combination of the three.
Thankfully, Carol was born with a relatively mild form of CP. “I was lucky. Only my left leg was affected,” says Carol, who had minor surgery performed on her left leg when she was 6 years old to correct her muscular alignment. Aside from a slight limp on her left side, Carol is able to lead a rich and active life, pursuing her passion for fitness as a part-time fitness instructor.
“I can’t run as fast or jump as high as everyone else,” Carol says. “But other than that, I can function just as well” as able-bodied persons.
That Carol has transcended her physical challenges to become a fitness instructor is only one small part of her incredible story. Indeed, throughout her entire life, Carol has been overcoming the odds. Take, for example, the fact that Carol doggedly scraped together enough money to attend college, against the wishes of her conservative-minded stepfather.
“My stepdad didn’t believe that women should go to college. He was of the mindset that women should stay at home and take care of the family,” Carol recalls. “If anything, that made me want to go even more.”
Determined to prove her stepfather wrong and assert her independence, Carol worked for a year out of high school and saved money. The next year, in 1970, she was accepted at Ohio State University and paid her own way the entire four years. Carol believes her academic achievements inspired her younger siblings to follow suit. “I paved the way for my other brothers and sisters after me,” she says. “My sisters weren’t planning on applying to college, but seeing me do it changed their mind.”
After college, Carol taught children with learning disabilities for 14 years. At a time when special education was still an emerging field, she was drawn to the profession in part because she could identify with the plight of children who were labeled “different.” Carol was one of the pioneers of the Reading Recovery program—a specialized tutoring strategy designed for low-achieving first graders.
“Seeing the kids gradually improve is a gift in itself,” Carol says. “One of my students went on to become a kindergarten teacher!”
With 39 years of teaching experience under her belt, Carol, now a second grade teacher at Espy Elementary, is a venerated figure in the Kenton School District who has instilled a passion for literature in countless generations of young readers. Whether she is teaching a classroom of children how to read or leading a fitness class through a series of yoga poses, Carol McKinley’s message remains the same: Believe in yourself.
“I enjoy encouraging other people,” says Carol. “I like seeing people improve and get more confident in their abilities.”
As a fitness instructor, she hopes to communicate the idea that anybody—regardless of age or ability—can get out there and exercise. “Nobody’s perfect,” she says. “I struggle a lot with my balance on my left side. But this doesn’t hold me back.”
After her daughter Lauren, 27, completed an Iron Man competition in 2010, Carol added a new goal to her list: complete a 5K. “I’m trying to incorporate more cardio into my routine to prepare,” she says. “I figured if Lauren could run 26.2 miles, surely I could run 3!”
Knowing Carol’s tenacious nature, there is no doubt that she will accomplish this goal.