Susannah Scaroni competes in wheelchair racing at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. (Photo: Mark Reis)
Susannah Scaroni still remembers the exact date when a car hit her from behind at full speed, nearly ending her athletic career and her life: Sept. 16, 2021.
The sun was bright in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, that Thursday morning as Scaroni, a 30-year-old Paralympic gold medal-winning wheelchair racer, took to the road to train for the Boston Marathon. Following her 5,000-meter win at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, expectations were high for Scaroni in Boston. But when the driver behind her was blinded by the sun, all of that was put in jeopardy.
Before she had time to comprehend what had happened, the collision had fractured her spine. Boston was out of the question. Scaroni’s entire future in the sport became uncertain.
Still, Scaroni was hopeful after the accident.
“I’m looking forward to focusing on recovery and getting back to training as soon as I can,” she wrote in an Instagram post just one day later.
As it turns out, she was right to be optimistic. On Sunday, after four months of recovery from the injury that almost ended her career, Scaroni will make a comeback at the NYC Half Marathon. She’s not putting pressure on herself to make the podium, instead focusing just on getting back in the saddle. Still, after what she’s gone through in the past six months, it won’t be a race she’ll ever forget.
To say that Scaroni has one of the most impressive resumes in wheelchair racing is an understatement: she’s won the Los Angeles Marathon twice, has competed in three Paralympic Games and met a longtime goal in 2021 when she won a gold medal in Tokyo. The 2021 Boston Marathon should have been an opportunity for her to continue her forward momentum and perhaps add yet another feather in her cap.
But on Oct. 11, instead of lining up with her competitors at the Boston Marathon starting line, Scaroni was at home in a back brace. She was pleasantly surprised by the amount of support — including flowers and cards — that she received in the time since her accident.
“It was really touching just to know how much people cared,” she said. “I have so many flower vases now.”
But being away from the sport she loved was a struggle.
The new year changed that. Scaroni was finally able to take the brace off in January, and she has been gradually getting back in shape since then. Today, she balances her training with her fifth-year nutrition internship at the University of Illinois, where she’s lived and trained with the school’s wheelchair racing team for the past 10 years. She’s training normally — doing speed work in the morning, then going to her internship, and doing strength training in the afternoon — but isn’t timing her training so she peaks at this weekend’s race.
That’s because her goal for her first race since her injury is just to get back in it and do her best.
“I’m not going to place any external pressure on myself,” she said. “I just want to get off the line and have fun out there.”
Far from having a strict competitive mindset, she looks forward to seeing the other athletes, many of whom she considers friends, and to meeting her best friend in New York City.
“She and I are already planning where we’re going to have dinner,” Scaroni said.
It will surely be an emotional reunion with the sport that has been such a huge part of her life since fourth grade, when she joined an adaptive sports team in Spokane, Washington.
“I fortunately grew up near (the club), and so I was able to play wheelchair basketball in fourth grade,” she said. “And then I was so in love with basketball that when we saw that track was starting, I wanted to join that as well.”
Scaroni found that she loved being active.
“To me, the physical act of being active makes me very happy,” she said.
She competed in both sports until college, when she was forced to drop basketball. But when she was offered a scholarship to train for track and field at Illinois in 2011, she jumped at the chance. She progressed in the sport quickly and made the U.S. Paralympic Team in 2012.
While there, she got her degree in nutrition and used herself as a guinea pig to test out some of what she learned. Around 2017, she said, “I started applying some of the evidence-based sports nutrition guidelines to myself.” Scaroni credits her diet with giving her more energy.
“I started to see a lot faster speeds,” she said. “I think since then, my career’s gotten a lot better.”
She’s applied that trial-and-error mindset to other aspects of her racing, too.
“I love wheelchair racing because there are so many different variables that you can mess around with,” she said. “I feel like I learn things constantly.”
This includes “an athlete’s chair position, hand ring size, hand ring coating, glove shape (just to name a few),” she said. Scaroni credits this approach for her quick progression in the sport.
“Learning and applying what you have learned can lead to so much progression,” she said.
The strategy certainly paid off in Tokyo, where she took an aggressive approach to the 5,000-meter race, winning gold in what she calls a “surreal” experience. She also earned a bronze medal in the 800 and posted top-10 finishes in the 1,500 and the marathon.
But having met one of her big life goals hasn’t changed her outlook much, she said. Instead, she just wants to continue to enjoy racing, to learn and improve, and to always do her best. Next, she plans to race the Boston Marathon, back at its usual time in April, but as far as what the future holds, racing will be a part of it for a long time.
“As long as I’m enjoying it, I don’t know if I need to win races to say, OK, I’m still doing this,” she said.
If anything has changed her outlook, though, it’s knowing what her life would be like without racing. Being in a brace for four months made Scaroni miss the sport, something she calls “a big piece of my life.” She missed the relationships that she had cultivated through the sport and has a newfound appreciation for being alive.
No matter how she performs at this weekend’s NYC Half, she’ll always carry these lessons with her.
“This is a privilege to get to do this,” she said. “And it’s one I don’t take lightly.”