Paralympian Susannah Scaroni Reflects On Her “Why” And The Impact She Hopes To Have On Female Athletes Everywhere

by Susannah Scaroni

Susannah Scaroni poses for photographs at the IPC World Para Athletics Championships on Nov. 13, 2019 in Dubai.


What's Your Why presented by DeVry highlights athlete’s individual motivations that drive them to pursue greatness on their journey to achieve their Olympic & Paralympic dreams.


I’ve had a growing realization that as an athlete, I’ve been given a magnifying glass into the human experience. With my world revolving around how my physical body performs, things like my sleep quality, my nutrition, my mental and emotional health and my spirituality take on heightened importance because a slight imbalance anywhere will directly affect my success on the field of play. 
This is especially important for me, because my most prized reason for competing, my why, is the ability to be a positive role model and to empower others to know they can go after anything they want. Experiencing these lessons has made me the athlete I am today, but getting to share these lessons is what helps me fulfill my purpose.
We all hear about the need to find balance in our lives, but when you’re an elite athlete and tasked with minimizing fractions of fractions that are your areas of weakness, or imbalances, you learn first-hand how surprisingly influential each area is to your overall success. I find this fascinating as well as humbling. While performance for me is the actualization of incalculable time spent training for my event, performance is undertaken by each of us every day and will be impacted by how well we nurture ourselves on the whole. 
Understandably, people admire professional athletes for their resiliency and being able to “hold it all together” under pressure, but I’d argue that we just have come to experience the tangible impacts of imbalances by attempting the difficult goal of making gains in the margins. 
For example, an inadequate breakfast or not getting enough sleep can drag my top speeds down at practice. For others, finding a clear feedback marker may be hard, but I’m sure we all know the feeling of being exhausted or just unable to focus. For me personally, preparing for Tokyo 2020, despite it being my third Paralympic Games, has been the most challenging because of the way it’s brought my own personal imbalances to the surface. Fortunately, the resiliency characteristic of a high performing athlete, in addition to the understanding of how much practice is required to perfect a new skill, have enabled me to concentrate on these areas and make significant improvements to the cracks I hadn’t known were there.

I imagine that our bodies show us these cracks in different ways. When I started graduate school after the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 Rio 2016, I was given my first dose of the sort of stress that I’d never felt before. I was still actively training and competing and hadn’t taken into account the difference between graduate and undergraduate school. My inability to put forth the needed effort for both showed up almost immediately and it did this through insomnia. 

Now, four years later, I have come to recognize the essential role that stress management plays in my ability to sleep and how pivotal sleep is to my ability to be successful. Moreover, there turned out to be many ways that my sleep became impacted, and each required its own solution. For example, I have learned how much my mind needs to plan for each of my obligations. When I began organizing my schedule with a calendar instead of a to-do list, and allocated specific times for the tasks, my sleep quality improved. 

Meditation has become another staple to my Tokyo 2020 preparation and is something I find very helpful. While insomnia showed me just how powerful the mind is, mediation allows me to embrace that power as a tool. Fortunately, there are many techniques that can help us become proficient at meditating (I use an app), but it definitely takes a lot of practice and dedication--but hey, that’s basically an athlete’s job description. Just as I devote specific time to physical training and to my obligations as a graduate student, I ensure to carve out time every day to train my mind.

As I said before, my why or the reason I compete, centers around the role that I embody as an athlete. I cherish the opportunity to demonstrate that nothing is impossible. Finding balance is an ongoing process and has rewards well beyond the podium. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t explicitly acknowledge the way that failure and challenges have served in giving me these insights. It was my perceived ‘failing’ at combining grad school with competing that opened my world to the possibility of learning new ways to adapt to the load. I have been in an exercise physiology and nutrition research group for four years and have a huge new appreciation for the positive molecular adaptations that occur inside our muscles when exercising to failure. As a para-athlete, I have experienced the wide gaps between a person’s drive based largely on how high of expectations society placed on them. I was fortunate to grow up within a community that encouraged me to hold high standards for myself, but that is not the case for all people with disabilities, and this reality can show up in how much (or little) they believe in themselves.

As a female para-athlete, I want to leverage the power of sports to cast an image for all girls, of all functional abilities, in all countries and at any age that they can set goals and reach them. I want them to know that they can lead full lives and make this world a better place. I want them to know that when things are extra challenging, when they learn of an imbalance somewhere, that they’ll know they can embrace that ‘failure’ and use it to grow more fully.