After a frightening accident, Susannah Scaroni continues to break boundaries in wheelchair track

A person smiles while using a racing wheelchair on a track. A clear blue sky and trees are in the background.
Susannah Scaroni. Photo: Fred Zwicky.

ONE MINUTE, wheelchair racer Susannah Scaroni, ’14 ACES, MS ’22 ACES, was pushing through a normal long training session, heading east on Windsor Road not far from campus. The next, she was moving ahead much more quickly than she expected.

It was early morning on Sept. 16, 2021. A month before, Scaroni had been in Tokyo for the Paralympics, where she won a gold medal in the 5,000 meters and a bronze medal in the 800 meters.

Now, she was on the ground next to her chair. A vehicle had struck her from behind.

At the hospital, scans revealed a burst fracture to her T8 vertebrae, which controls abdominal and chest muscles. Scaroni spent four days there and four weeks in a clamshell-type back brace—much of that time concerned for her future, in sports and otherwise.

“I was just thinking, ‘what is this going to mean?’ Your back is something you don’t take lightly,” she recalls. “But also, I was so thankful I was alive.”

Recovery was daunting, but Scaroni has always been determined and resilient. When she was 5 years old, her family car slid on black ice. The resulting spinal cord injury left her without sensation in her legs.

Sports gave Scaroni an outlet. First, she played alongside her classmates—then in fourth grade, she discovered wheelchair basketball, and then racing.

She fell in love with movement, but in high school, struggled with injury and disordered eating. Counseling from a registered dietitian taught her the necessity of properly fueling her training. Doing so brought her success; in 2012, the year after she came to the U of I, she made her first Paralympic team.

The experience inspired her studies. (Scaroni finished her master’s degree in dietetics this December.) Eventually, she hopes to work as a dietitian for para-athletes, as well as for patients in hospitals and rehab facilities.

But in the meantime, she had races to run. So Scaroni’s coach, Adam Bleakney, slowly eased her back to activity. She started with pool walking and lying on her back to use an arm ergometer.

In January, Scaroni returned to her racing chair. By February, she was finishing workouts with her teammates on the Illinois wheelchair track team. Her first race back was the 2022 Boston Marathon in April; she came in second. [Editor's update: Scaroni finished first In her division the 2023 Boston Marathon.]

In May 2022, she set a 5,000-meter world record of 10:38.46 at the Daniela Jutzeler Memorial para-track event in Switzerland. That event was especially meaningful because it was named for a Swiss wheelchair racer who died in a car collision in 1994. “For whatever reason, I was given a second chance to pursue what she also was doing,” Scaroni says. “I really want to honor that.”

In November, Scaroni set a record time in the New York Marathon, Women’s Wheelchair Division, besting a time set by teammate Tatyana McFadden ('13, ACES). It was a capstone to a phenomenal year that has transformed Scaroni, increasing her gratitude for health, love (this September, she married Jacob Jarrett) and life itself. “I just didn’t realize how much I appreciate what I get to do, every single day,” she says. 

Story Source(s)