The Victory Lap: Susannah Scaroni🏆

No disrespect to any of the wonderful people we’ve talked to over the last year, but this week we’re joined by the most accomplished athlete yet. Not only did Susannah Scaroni bring home gold and bronze from Tokyo, but she also has smashed the 5000m and 10000m world records just this year.

Admittedly, I’ve never paid that close of attention to the wheelchair races during Major marathons. I didn’t know anyone competing personally and didn’t know anyone’s story. That changed a couple of weeks ago while we were in Falmouth and had the opportunity to be up close and personal with the athletes pulling ridiculously fast times around the high school track and on the roads. The sounds, the energy, the racing that’s taking place in person — none of it comes across while watching network marathon coverage. I’m hooked. And I’m incredibly excited to learn the ins and outs of the sport going forward. This was one of my favorite conversations I’ve had for the Victory Lap so far. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

How did you find your way to the sport — was it just a way to get outside? Exercise? Competition?

So basically what drew me in immediately was the fact that I grew up in a tiny town, south of Spokane — it’s an 800 person town. And basketball is humongous there. And so as a third-grader, I started playing basketball.

And to give you some background, I was injured when I was in kindergarten. And honestly, it wasn't really until I started playing basketball that I realized that I was in a wheelchair because I was always treated the same and played right alongside my friends. But sports started to bring that discrepancy up for me and it was eye-opening.

I really disliked it because everyone had to pass me the ball once before getting a basket because I was the slowest on the court and all that. I felt patronized. I was really discouraged. But we learned the next year in the fourth grade of a wheelchair basketball team in Spokane. I was reluctant to go, but my mom forced me to come to practice and it was everything that I had been dreaming of the year before; just being able to do sports because it is a huge thing in a tiny little town. I was able to be on the wheelchair basketball team like there was no difference.

I was just playing the sport and I was immediately obsessed, basically, with that feeling of equality and getting to do sports. So I started wheelchair racing that same spring. And I think the reason why I did it through middle school and high school is not necessarily out of competitiveness. I'm one of the least competitive people ever, but I love exercising — like, I truly do. I love trying to get the best out of myself every day and being outside, like you said. I love being outside.

So an example of that — I was planning on coming out to Illinois right out of high school, but the out-of-state tuition was so high that my mom did not want me to go there. So I went to school in Montana for a couple of years and I didn't play basketball because there was no team. But I had my racing chair with me and I was just pushing because I loved it and had no speedometer or anything.

My chemistry professor — he was an avid runner — showed me MapMyRun and I realized I was doing like, 20-mile pushes just for fun. I even had the key to a high school track just because I enjoyed it. And two years after that, the coach in Illinois contacted me, saying there was a full-ride scholarship opportunity if I still wanted to come. So that's when I transferred, in 2011, just truly loving to exercise and pushing the racing chair.

Being at Illinois propelled me immediately because I made the 2012 Paralympic Games in London for the marathon, which was really surprising. But that put me into the Major marathon cycle where I started getting invites to all of these races. And I’d say that's where my career really started. I didn't expect to make that team, so it all happened extremely fast, but I loved pushing marathons and it gave me a chance to travel all over and pursue my degree in nutrition science.

That was the beginning of my career. Now though, what has changed is I think of myself more as a role model. I know that as a kid in Spokane, we had this race called Bloomsday — your mom probably knows of it — where I saw adult wheelchair racers. That's how I learned about the University of Illinois, which has the largest wheelchair racing training center in the world.

Finding adaptive sports teams has to be harder in small towns, right?

Yup! Part of the reason I'm here on this path is that I was so blessed to be near Spokane. I just happened to grow up near an adaptive sports team. There's a lot of small towns that don’t have that, but even huge cities sometimes don't have them either. There are few places throughout the country that actually have adaptive sports programs for youth. So most of the athletes at Illinois have come from those programs. There are thousands of other people out there that just don't know about wheelchair racing or other sports, because they don't have access.

The awesome part about the marathons is that — especially with the Majors — there's so much more media coverage. I've watched the growth of adaptive sports programs in general over the last ten years just because people know about it and we’re getting more and more coverage.

I get contacted regularly by parents or people who just want to know how they can have their kids be active. And so I think in addition to that, some athletes who I know have gone through this program are coaching now too. There's just this moment right now where there's more awareness and there’s more people who have information on how to coach.

And I think the prize money is catching up as well! This is a professional sport after all. I’m sure that has changed quite a bit over the last ten years.

So in 2017, the Major series added the wheelchair division to the series. One of the ways that has changed is that now we also are part of that incentive to perform well at each of the Majors each year — there's an additional $50,000 prize purse that was never there before!

Most of the Majors have also had an increase in the prize purse every year for the wheelchair division. Some have started paying deeper in the finishers as well. Another one of the biggest things that's changed is that in 2018, the US decided to pay Paralympic medals the same that they pay Olympic medals. It was such a bold move that they were willing to retroactively pay all of the medalists who had competed in the 2018 Winter Games. And so that was a huge move and has made a big difference for a lot of athletes.

Just after the Tokyo Olympics, you were hit by a car while training — how serious was it, and did you have to adjust any of your athletic expectations afterward?

I was a hit from behind. The speed limit there is 45 so I'm assuming that's how fast the car was going when it hit me. I ended up fracturing three vertebrae in my back. And I, to be perfectly honest, had no idea how the recovery would go.

Everybody’s back is important, but in my mind, you know, it’s especially important for wheelchair users. I did not do anything for the first four weeks. And then I got a second opinion from Chicago and they said at six weeks I could start doing basically a light-arm bike.

I got a stationary one and I would lay on my back to do it. So I could do that and lift five-pound dumbbells as long as I was on my back. And so I did that for the next six weeks. It wasn’t super exhausting, but it was something. At four months out I was finally given the okay to try out my racing chair, and that was a whole process coming back — I would get so tired so quickly.

But it was still a start. And I did reset my goals. I completely reset my goals. We started out with ten minutes of being in that position. But because I’m not the most competitive person I wasn't really struggling with missing that, I was just trying to get the most out of each day.

Obviously, my racing chair was hit in the crash, so during this comeback, I got to use one of my teammate's racing chairs because she was retiring. This is a chair that Honda built. Honda is one of the huge sponsors for wheelchair racing, but they don't sponsor many athletes, and their racing chairs are $37,000. So I started using that chair but it was a different position than I’m normally in. And it actually put some more strain on my back so it took me a long time to get used to that position, and I’d say I wasn’t fully used to it until probably this June.

But now that I’m finally used to this chair, things are starting to click, but it’s still surprising to me. I set the world record in the 5,000m this May. It was 14 seconds below the previous world record, and I pushed the race alone completely. I didn't foresee this. I don't think anyone did, but it's turned into the best season I've ever had. I set the world best in the marathon in June and the world record in the 10,000m, too. And it's just — it’s been really insane.

How was your Tokyo experience? Did you go into it expecting the medals you won?

Honestly, I really did not know what to expect because we hadn't competed with anyone for two years. I was just planning on doing the best I could. Normally you at least get a prelim to kind of gauge things. But our 5000m prelim got canceled, so my first race was the 5000m final. And I think that worked to my advantage. I don't know if it would have worked out the same way if we had a prelim, but honestly, that happened by accident.

I ended up dropping the group with seven laps to go. I just decided to move instead of waiting for the group — because normally with wheelchair racing, if you ever watch track events, there's a lot of drafting and like switching leads between laps. And that's what we had been doing the first five laps until it was my turn to pull.

I didn't know how fast we were going because my speedometer wasn’t working in the stadium. So I just went. I looked back and the group was 100m behind me. I decided to keep going and wait for them to catch up to me cause I knew that they would. At first I was super embarrassed. I was like, ‘oh my gosh, you don't do that kind of strategy.’ But they never caught up to me. And so when I was there with two laps to go, I just realized I needed to go and try and hold it. I was like one second off the world record and it was all a shock and a surprise. And still to this day, I'm like, I can't believe what happened.

One thing I found out while there was that I had a huge weakness in the rain. Half of my races were raining and that was a huge problem for me. During the 1500m final I was ten strokes in and slipped off the hand ring and injured my hand in the wheel and had to work with that injury for the rest of the games.

Because you can compete at so many distances with such a high frequency, how do you set up a season? What races do you prioritize?

Yeah, that's a great question. A few things are important to note. One, with wheelchair racing, there's so much less impact on your joints that you can physically do a lot of racing and a lot of volume. So you have the opportunity to do a lot more races, just physically. It’s not easy, but the lack of impact helps us be able to compete pretty often.

Right now, as I mentioned, we have an incentive to do well in as many Majors as possible to be in contention for that extra $50,000 bonus. So honestly, if it's a Major marathon, you're incentivized to do it. But then more importantly — and I think a lot of people feel this way — having that exposure from the Majors and hoping that that prize money continues to increase so that more people learn about adaptive sports. That’s the other incentive: to go to as many races as I can just so people can watch us compete.

That being said, the brakes that I put on normally come from the fact that you have to travel with the equipment. There’s always a risk of something getting damaged or lost. And also just physically, travel is super hard. So that’s the balance I try to work with.

Where is the next race on the schedule and what's the goal?

The Berlin Marathon! And the goal going in is to win!

Thank you so much to Susannah for sharing her story and for growing our appreciation of adaptive sports! You can follow her journey on Instagram and Twitter.