NewsSusannah Scaroni

Susannah Scaroni Focused On What She Could Do, And Oh Did She Do It

by Karen Price

Susannah Scaroni poses for a photo with her marathon winner's medal following the New York City Marathon on Nov. 7, 2022 in New York.


One year ago, Paralympic wheelchair racing champion Susannah Scaroni was confined to a back brace and unsure of her future after being hit by a car while on a training ride.
Today, she can look back on a year that certainly held its trials but also its incredible triumphs, including her first two major marathon victories in Chicago and New York City and the recent successful defense of her master’s thesis. 
What stands out the most now as she reflects back on it all?
“The perspective I have after the last year is that even when things are hard, we have an opportunity to choose to either focus on what you can do, or focus on what you think was taken away,” she said. “What really stands out from racing, recovering, my masters, all these things, is to focus on the area in which you can do something when both realities are there. That’s so important.”
Scaroni, a T54 athlete from Tekoa, Washington, went to the Paralympics for the third time last year in Tokyo and medaled for the first, winning gold in the 5,000-meter and bronze in the 800. Less than two weeks after returning home she was already preparing for the fall marathon season, excited to see what she could do coming off her success in Tokyo. She was on a solo training ride not far from her current home in Champaign, Illinois, when the accident happened. 
“I remember going and all of a sudden moving so quickly and thinking, ‘This is not me, and it’s not going to be good,’” she said. “Then I was out of my chair on the road, there was a car ahead of me and I could see someone walking toward me and I put it together.”
The 31-year-old, who was paralyzed in a car crash when she was 5, had been hit from behind. She suffered three fractured vertebrae and a knee, in addition to cuts and burns from the road. Her racing chair was destroyed. 
Her first thought lying in the hospital as doctors constructed the clam shell brace that she would wear for the next four months was that she was happy to be alive.
“Had it been a bigger car, you never know,” she said. “It was a four-door sedan.”
But soon her thoughts turned to her ability to return to daily life activities. Already being in a wheelchair, she worried about developing chronic back problems that might hamper her independence. And she thought about racing.
“I clearly was in the best shape I’d ever been in in terms of my fitness, and I was excited to get into fall marathon season so, yeah, I won’t deny I had a lot of disappointment not knowing how many marathons I could have raced and how they would have turned out,” she said. “But by and large it was more thankful that I was alive. That could always overpower the disappointment.”
After two weeks of complete inactivity, Scaroni was cleared to begin light exercise as long as she stayed flat on her back. She worked out on an upper body ergometer that was attached to a workout bench, 20 minutes a session to start. She wasn’t allowed to do anything high intensity, and couldn’t lift anything heavier than 10 pounds. After six weeks she was allowed to work out in a pool.
Finally in January, Scaroni was allowed to get back to pushing. She began modified workouts with her teammates at the University of Illinois in February, and by mid-month she was doing the same workouts.

Susannah Scaroni competes during the women's 1,500-meter T54 at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 30, 2021 in Tokyo.


But her back was fatiguing quickly. Not only was she rehabbing, but she was also adjusting to a different position in her new racing chair. The seat is higher, she said, which puts her butt higher than her knees and more strain on her back. She ended up putting some foam under her knees to raise them and take some strain off her back, and ultimately thinks the new position was effective once she got the hang of it. 
“I already am that person who really doesn’t like change, so it’s kind of a blessing in disguise that my chair was totaled otherwise I probably would not have had the willingness to try the new position,” she said. 
Her first race back was the Boston Marathon in April. She finished in second place with a time of 1 hour, 46 minutes 20 seconds. At the start of May, she won her first gold since Tokyo with a win at the Bloomsday 12K in Spokane, Washington. At the end of the month came a win and a world record in the 5,000 meters at the Daniela Jutzeler Memorial, a race named in memory of the Swiss wheelchair racer who was killed a few weeks after the 1994 world championships when she was hit by a car on a training ride. 
If Scaroni had the opportunity to race this season, she said yes. 
This fall, she had a challenging stretch of three marathons in three weeks. She started in Berlin and finished third on Sept. 25, then she was second in London on Oct. 2. The next week in Chicago she broke through for her first major marathon win, finishing in 1:45:48. 
Then at the start of November, Scaroni established an early lead that she would not relinquish at the New York City Marathon and won in 1:42:43, breaking the course record previously held by Team USA teammate and wheelchair racing legend Tatyana McFadden. 
“Oh my gosh, I did not think that was going to happen going into the race,” said Scaroni, who also claimed the title of Abbott World Marathon Majors Series XIV champion with the win. “I truly was feeling pretty flat at that point. But we had perfect weather conditions for wheelchair racing. That really helped me that day, and we had tail wind for a lot of the race. Additionally, I love hills so my coach’s goal for me this year has always been the New York City Marathon.”
Since defending her master’s thesis, Scaroni will now focus on studying for the boards so she can become a registered dietician. Once that happens she’ll seek work that will allow her to keep up her busy training schedule as she gets ready for the Paralympic Games Paris 2024. She and her coach have already identified some weaknesses on the track that they want to work on leading up to the Games, although she declined to say exactly what.
Scaroni knows she’ll have plenty of challengers ahead after watching some up-and-coming talent race this year, including Switzerland’s Catherine Debrunner, who won Berlin in her marathon debut, and Germany’s Merle Menje.
“I have to say I’m happy to see that we have some new people who are coming and keeping races fresh and exciting,” she said. “I feel like this is such a good time for me because I want depth and strength of field. As much as I want to have these runs like Tatyana and Manuela Schar (of Switzerland) who just dominated for so long, I also love when you don’t know who’s going to win and you have fresh faces coming in.”

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.