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U of I dietetics student will race in Paralympics

Published August 17, 2012

URBANA - University of Illinois junior Susannah Scaroni says her training at “the top wheelchair athletes program in the country, possibly the world” has prepared her to compete for a medal in the marathon at the 2012 Paralympics, held in London from August 29 to Sept. 9.

 I’m at the best place I could be as a wheelchair athlete and as a dietetics major who wants to go into sports nutrition. These U of I programs are phenomenal,” Scaroni said, who is ranked fourth in the U.S. in her event, while two athletes from other countries are strong medal contenders.

 he Paralympics, in which athletes with a physical disability compete, will be held in London’s Olympic venues, and the athlete looks forward to staying in the Olympic Village with the 224 athletes of Team USA. She is not the only U of I student on the team; 10 members of the track team are from the U of I. Two basketball team members attend U of I for its stellar facilities and training program, but they’ll play for their home countries of Japan and Great Britain.

And NBC has just announced it will air an hour of nightly prime-time coverage, she said.

Just like Michael Phelps and Aly Raisman, Scaroni will be cheered on by her mom and other family members, including her older sister, two aunts, and an uncle. And, like them, she’s benefited from years of support from parents who went the extra mile so Susannah could race the 26.2 looping miles of the Paralympic marathon course.

A native of Washington state, Scaroni was injured in a car accident at age five that left her paralyzed at vertebra T12. That means she has no use of or feeling in her legs although she can use her abdominal and back muscles.

When she was in fourth grade, her mother took her to a disability fest in Spokane where she was approached by a wheelchair basketball coach.  

“I lived in a small town, and I had never seen anyone else in a wheelchair. I wanted to try it, and my mother was very supportive, driving me an hour each way to practices and games. When the track season began, I joined that team too and continued with both sports all the way through high school,” she said.

Growing up, she heard her teammates talk up U of I as the preferred college destination for wheelchair athletes, and as she investigated the dietetics program, she became even more determined to become an Illini.

“When I was in high school, I lost a lot of weight and was on bedrest for a year. That experience taught me the importance of good nutrition for competitive athletes. I saw firsthand the role that nutrition plays in performance. Now I can’t wait to study nutrition and understand it better,” she said.

Scaroni transferred into the U of I dietetics program this year, receiving both an athletic scholarship and a transfer scholarship based on grade-point average. She has recently been named a James Scholar and is excited about the possibility of doing research with Food Science and Human Nutrition professors.

When she arrived from tiny Carroll College in Montana, the U of I athletic trainers immediately started to get her ready for the Chicago Marathon.

“Before coming here, I’d only done a 12K, so Chicago’s 42K was a challenge. In that race, I qualified for the Boston Marathon. My coach then signed me up for Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn., and that’s where I hit the time that made people think I could compete in the Paralympics,” she said.

The following Monday, however, Scaroni sprained her arm. Her times during the Paralympic trials suffered because of her injury, and things looked bleak for the marathon racer.

“But, when they called out the names of the team members, I made it as a result of my time in the Minnesota marathon,” she said.

Whatever happens when Scaroni races Sept. 9, and she knows she has a chance to medal, her future looks bright thanks to the opportunities she’ll have in the next two years at U of I.

“When I was attending school in Montana, I trained alone. Here I’m surrounded by elite wheelchair athletes, and our training schedules are built into our school schedules. It means the world to me,” she said.

She’ll also prepare for a career in sport nutrition in the U of I’s truly topnotch program, and she can’t wait to get started.

Additional Images:
  • Susannah practices for Paralymics