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“Blessed to be Alive": Marathoner Susannah Scaroni talks gratitude after qualifying for fourth Paralympics

For Scaroni, '21 provided new perspective, purpose
After being struck by a car in 2021, Susannah Scaroni shares how she turned it into a "blessing" and lives with "gratitude," how she's improved her training, and why she's so proud to be a part of the Illinois community.

Two-time Paralympic medalist Susannah Scaroni was one of the first to qualify for the U.S. Paralympic team across all sports, with a third-place finish at the NYC Marathon this November. Paris will be Scaroni’s fourth Paralympic appearance—an opportunity that she is immensely grateful for after surviving a car accident back in 2021 that fractured her spine. The accident has since given the Tekoa, Washington native a new perspective, purpose, and appreciation for life.

Scaroni, who has since recovered to win three major marathons over the last two years, opens up about the experience, what the Paralympic movement means to her, and what she’s excited for most about Paris 2024. The newly registered dietician also discusses her passion for nutrition and more in the conversation below.

RELATED: 2023 New York City Marathon Results

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Congratulations! You just qualified for your fourth Paralympic Games. How do you feel?

Susannah Scaroni: I feel so great. I’m honored to make the team for USA and I’m really excited! We have an incredibly strong women’s field so I’m really excited for next year.

Susannah Scaroni qualified.JPG


Does the feeling of qualifying for the Paralympic Games ever get old? What is it about the Paralympic movement that is so special?

Scaroni: Absolutely not! It’s so challenging to make the Paralympic Games. It’s the peak opportunity for me as an athlete and so it’s an honor. It really speaks to all the amazing training that I get to have, my incredible support systems, and it’s very exciting.

This is my fourth Games, as you said. I can remember back to my very first Games in 2012, being a new young athlete, it was just as hard to make that team. Now to be in my fourth Games and know there are so many young women who are here because parasports have been embraced and they’ve allowed opportunities for people with disabilities to be the best, strongest version of themselves. For the impact that it’s had not only in my world but in my country, the world—which I’ve been able to travel all over—and to see the impact of parasports on the disabled community at large. I think the Paralympic movement does so much for every aspect of society and that to me is the most important part.

Aww I love that! What are you looking forward to most about Paris 2024?

Scaroni: First, the competition! There is such a strong women’s field right now so there will be incredible racing. But also, there will be a French bakery in the Olympic village so that is almost as exciting for me.

Going back in time, give me one word to describe Susannah Scaroni at your previous Paralympic experiences. Let’s start with The London Games.

Scaroni: Excited. I was so excited to be able to race in a marathon— the longest event possible—in an entirely new field for me. It was my first year of marathon racing. I was excited to go into the unknown in something that I love doing.

2012 London Paralympics - Day 11 - Athletics Marathon

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 09: Susannah Scaroni of United States in action during the T54 Women’s Marathon on day 11 of the London 2012 Paralympic Games on The Mall on September 9, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)

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What about Rio 2016?

Scaroni: I would say motivated. I was really motivated in Rio to put those four years of what I had learned in wheelchair racing on the line that day, and to see what I could do against women who I respect so much, yet had a little more experience racing with.

Susannah Scaroni Rio.JPG


The Tokyo Games.

Scaroni: I was fearless in Tokyo. I had so much more experience under my belt but we were going from not racing with other athletes for like, almost two years at that point. I had gotten to train solo during the pandemic. I had all of that just pent up. I was confident in what I had trained for and I was just planning to do and put everything on the line. I didn’t really feel like I had much fear.

2020 Tokyo Paralympics - Day 6

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 30: Susannah Scaroni of Team United States competes in her women’s 1500m T54 heat on day 6 of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 30, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

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How will this Paralympics be different for you the fourth time around?

Scaroni: I think Paris will be different because I am so much more acutely aware of my own strengths and weaknesses. I’m more in tune to my competitors strengths and weaknesses. I have more confidence in myself than I’ve had in other Games, but I also know that I need to be planning, preparing, and reserving that confidence for when it really matters.

You’ve really overcome a lot over the last 2 years to get here. You were hit by a car in 2021 yet somehow you were able to come back better, winning several major marathons since. You said you feel like you were given a chance to be here again after your accident. How did it impact your perspective and purpose?

Scaroni: After what happened in 2021, even on a race like [this year’s NYC marathon], I did have quite a few race jitters in the morning and that’s not very normal for me. But what I was able to think about was how awesome and what a blessing it is to be alive and to get to be on a start line next to all the people who I love being around. I really attribute a lot of that to picturing myself that morning [after the accident] and how thankful I was to have survived.

That really is able to help you quell a lot of nerves that I think are important, but also can’t overtake your psyche. That thankfulness to be alive and get to be here was something that I know has helped me for the better since then.

Thank God that you’re okay and you’ve recovered! It’s so impressive how you’ve been able to significantly improve since then. How have you been able to get so much better? What’s changed in your training?

Scaroni: I think just having that ultimate gratitude to get to be here is really important. If there is a negative thought of fear or stress, gratitude really is able to overshadow those [feelings].

Being in my training environment at the University of Illinois with an amazing wheelchair racing coach has contributed a lot throughout that process.

From a technical standpoint have there been any small tweaks that you’ve made to your strategy?

Scaroni: Yes, before Tokyo I did. I went to smaller handlings. That was one thing I do attribute to getting a higher top speed which is really important in our sport.

After 2021, I did actually move into a different racing chair that was a different seating position. While it wasn’t what I was planning to do, I did it while I was recovering. That was my only option to train [at the time]. I think I was able to use my gratitude of being able to train to really learn wheelchair racing again in a new position. That has worked out really well for me, clearly.

Every American that qualified for the Paralympics at the NYC marathon went to the University of Illinois. Can you talk about the strength of that program and how much pride you have in being a part of it?

Scaroni: I have so much pride to be a part of that community. The University of Illinois has such a long standing history of adaptive sports. Not only in sports but it’s translated into professional and just human quality of life in that we have some of the most accessible college campuses for people with disabilities. It’s just a community of understanding that people with disabilities are humans that need to live their best life.

To get to be there where so many incredible athletes have started and have come from… I owe everything I am to those who come before me.

My coach who’s incredible, Adam Bleakney, he’s still there, humbly encouraging us to be our very best versions of ourselves. It’s all really incredible to get to represent the University of Illinois and how it has impacted wheelchair racing.

Susannah Scaroni Illinois strong.JPG


You and Tatyana McFadden are two household names in wheelchair racing. Can you talk about your relationship and what you’ve learned from each other?

Scaroni: When I started back in 2011, at the U of I, I was surrounded by so many amazing wheelchair racers. Tatyana being one of those very important ones. She not only is incredible out on the racecourse, but she welcomed me immediately as I arrived and has been such a great and loyal friend. By getting to train with her every day and race with her, she showed me a lot of things about wheelchair racing that have really served me well. She’s a great advocate for the sport and for people with disabilities.

Susannah Scaroni (right) and Tatyana McFadden (left) celebrate after winning gold and bronze in the women's 5000m T54 at the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics

TOPSHOT - Bronze medalist USA’s Tatyana McFadden (L) and Gold medalist USA’s Susannah Scaroni celebrate after the women’s 5000m - T53/54 of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on August 28, 2021. (Photo by Philip FONG / AFP) (Photo by PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

I love that! Switching gears - you passed your registered dietitian exam recently. Congratulations! Can you talk about your passion for nutrition and where that comes from?

Scaroni: I’ve had a passion for nutrition for a very long time. It actually started inadvertently in high school. I did experience a pretty severe eating disorder. It was really was through eating more food and feeling stronger and getting faster that I actually realized the really essential role and function of food for athletes.

Ever since then, it’s sparked this interest in what ways in which food can function as a tool in sports. Sports nutrition is a really incredible and evolving field. I love the ability to learn and then as an athlete to apply what I learned and help others also benefit from a great nutrition strategy.

If you could go back in time and give the younger Susannah who was struggling at that time with an eating disorder advice, what advice would you say to your younger self?

Scaroni: I would say that instead of waiting so many years, try eating more and then look at your times and look at your speeds. You’re an eighth grader but you have a growing body that’s an incredible powerhouse. You need to fuel that growth and it will serve you to get stronger and faster, which are your ultimate goals.