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Paralympic dreams: Large contingent of Parasport Spokane athletes has eyes on podium ahead of Tokyo Games

UPDATED: Sat., Aug. 21, 2021

By Madison McCord For The Spokesman-Review

Susannah Scaroni still remembers Sunday afternoon trips to Coeur d’Alene as a young child to go roller skating with her family after church.

She also remembers everything about the car crash that took away the use of her legs at the age of 6.

The Tekoa, Washington, native may have limited memories of her life out of a wheelchair, but the 30-year-old hopes the memories she makes over the coming weeks are golden.

Silver or bronze would be fine, too.

Scaroni is one of 11 current or former athletes from Parasports Spokane who will be representing the United States in the Paralympic games, which begin Tuesday in Tokyo.

•••

Growing up in Tekoa, Scaroni never felt like she was unable to fit in when it came to school or hanging out with friends.

Sports were a different story, though.

“It wasn’t really until I got to third grade and tried playing basketball with my classmates that I realized I was in a wheelchair because I was so included in everything,” Scaroni said. “I played what everyone else was playing, and I didn’t think twice about being there. I just had to adapt a bit to do it the best I could. But playing sports is when it really came up for me because you realize that you are the slowest on the court, and you start doing drills with the team where you all had to be at one end of the court before you could shoot and by the time I got there they were always heading the other way.

“I remember thinking I would never play sports again, especially because basketball is everything in Tekoa and you really want to play it. But I was so included in that community, which made me realize anything was possible with support like that.”

Around that time is when Scaroni was introduced to Parasport Spokane and executive director Teresa Skinner. Through Shriners Hospitals for Children, Scaroni was invited to a sports expo at Spokane Community College.

“At that expo you saw rock climbing and lots of other things, but Parasport Spokane was also there with basketball chairs, so that was part of the rotation for the day and was a huge recruitment tool,” Scaroni said. “That’s how I learned about the program, but Hoopfest and Bloomsday are also great exposure for para sports.”

That introduction eventually led Scaroni to the track, where she developed physical toughness along with a sense of independence.

Much of which she credits to the coaching and mentoring of Skinner.

“She is so tenacious, because she knows the impact experience has on people. From a coaching standpoint, it was incredible because there is no saying no, no saying I can’t,” Scaroni said. “It was always, ‘Let’s do it,’ and if it’s hard she wants you to learn why it is hard and how to fix it.

“We had a rule growing up that the parents weren’t allowed to travel with us because it normally resulted in them trying to do everything for us, and she knew we had to learn to be independent. And that’s hard for any kid, but it’s really hard for a kid with a disability because society typically doesn’t expect them to do everything on their own. And we had fun doing it.”

•••

Hannah Dederick may be one of the youngest wheelchair track athletes in Tokyo this summer, but that doesn’t mean the 18-year-old has had a short journey to get to the starting line.

Born in Suzhou, China, Dederick was put up for adoption at the local hospital as an infant by her birth parents after learning she had spina bifida.

“My parents wanted the best for me and knew that leaving me at the hospital would be the best,” Dederick said from Tokyo.

That’s when hospital volunteer Lori Dederick and her husband Don stepped in and adopted Hannah.

In 2006, when Hannah was 3 years old, the family moved to Alabama, followed by their move to Spokane in 2012.

Like Scaroni, Dederick learned about Parasport Spokane through Shriners Hospital during a visit shortly after arriving in Spokane. But it took a few years for her to warm up to the idea of giving sports a shot.

“I was kinda hesitant at first. Then I decided that I wanted to give it a try and see how it goes,” Dederick said. “Joining the team definitely grew my competitiveness. Wheelchair racing was the first sport I ever tried, and I’ve loved it ever since.”

Since then, Dederick has become a star on the track. But as a rookie in Tokyo, she knows she will have to lean on the knowledge and experience of her Spokane teammates.

“Being one of the youngest wheelchair racing athletes at these games, along with it being my first Paralympics, my coach and teammates are just telling me to have fun and enjoy being a part of the games,” Dederick said. “I definitely feel like I am the baby of this team, but it’s been great and I have loved getting to train and hang out with the more experienced athletes.”

•••

Much like last month’s Olympic games, Paralympic athletes enter the Tokyo games surrounded by as many questions as answers.

Between concerns over the still-raging coronavirus pandemic to the lack of recent international competition, these games will test both the physical and mental fortitudes of the athletes.

“There have been so many unknowns for me ahead of the games because I haven’t raced internationally for like two years since before the pandemic, and with the pandemic still going on, I know there will be a ton of precautions once we get going,” Dederick said.

Dederick and a few Parasport Spokane teammates decided to leave for Tokyo two weeks before the games to get acclimated to the time change and participate in a camp held at a local military base. Scaroni held off traveling to Japan until right before the games.

“I always sleep horribly on the road, so I figured 10 more days of good rest was the right call,” Scaroni said.

Once the games get underway, though, it will be nonstop action for many of the athletes.

Scaroni, who will be competing in her third Paralympics, is known as a talented marathon racer, finishing seventh in London (2012) and eighth in Rio de Janeiro (2016) while also competing in the 800 meters.

This year, she is adding two track events to her docket, competing in the marathon, 800, 1,500 and 5,000.

“Even though I didn’t make the final in the 800 in Rio, I’m glad I had the experience on the track because what it showed me is how long the call time is at the games,” Scaroni said. “Honestly, in my track meet experience, you end up doing a lot of things in a short amount of time, so I’m thinking as I get into the racing mode it will get easier. The first one is usually rough, but it tends to get better.”

Dederick will line up in the 100 and 400.

Both are coming off impressive showings at the U.S. Paralympic Trials two months ago in Minnesota, with Scaroni winning the 1,500 and 5,000, while Dederick won the 100.

But with the lack of recent international competition, Scaroni believes there may not be as many obvious medal favorites.

“I expect everyone to be a dark horse and that’s pretty nice and different from a normal year,” Scaroni said. “I haven’t really seen other people race in a few years.”

The two aren’t coming into the games as unknown entities, though. Dederick won golds in the 100, 200, 400 and 800 at the 2019 Junior World Championships, while Scaroni earned a pair of bronze medals in the 800 and 5,000 at the 2019 World Championships.

•••

When it comes to collegiate athletics, most sports have a top tier of traditional powerhouse programs.

For wheelchair track, the University of Illinois is the clear-cut blue blood.

“We were the first collegiate program in the world to offer athletic opportunities for students with disabilities,” Illinois wheelchair track coach Adam Bleakney said. “We were established in 1948, and students participated in basketball with other sports following quickly, including track, which at that time just competed in a parking lot. We have tons of industrial knowledge and have structured staff, so that’s a big part of why we have grown like we have.”

The campus in Champaign, Illinois, is also home to the U.S. Paralympic wheelchair track national training center, which explains why so many Parasport Spokane athletes make Illinois their collegiate home.

“It’s no coincidence that we all came to these humid corn fields,” Scaroni said. “It would be great if there were more collegiate programs, just because there should be more options for athletes, but it’s also awesome to have all of these incredible racers together.”

Dederick, a recent Central Valley grad, will also head to Illinois two weeks after returning from Tokyo to begin her freshman year.

Bleakney, who is also a coach for the U.S. wheelchair track team, credits the work of Parasport Spokane in building the strong pipeline between the programs.

“Teresa has done an incredible job and her passion for these athletes and for the sport is unmatched, and we have a long relationship knowing her for almost 20 years,” Bleakney said.

“If I had to pinpoint why the Spokane athletes come to Illinois, it is our relationship, which is one I really value. I can’t speak highly enough of their program.”

•••

Scaroni’s focus – getting ready for the Tokyo Games – over the past few months has been unwavering.

But when she returns to Champaign, that mindset will turn from the track to the classroom as she finishes her master’s degree in sports nutrition.

“My dietetic internship begins when I get back from Tokyo, and I have put this thing off for the past two games and I told myself I just need to do this,” Scaroni said. “Eventually, I am going to retire, so my thinking is that I am going to devote all my energy to this internship so I get the most out of it, and then I will see how I do in terms of training in addition to that.

“I don’t want to retire. I love racing, but we will see how it goes.

“I am content if it is the end because I’ve had a great career.”

If it is the end of the Paralympic road – and track – for Scaroni, she will go out competing in a games with unprecedented broadcast and streaming options, which means well-deserved exposure for the athletes.

Between NBC’s broadcast networks and its streaming platform, Peacock, a record 1,200 hours of Paralympic coverage will be shown over the coming weeks; 135 hours of that will be shown on NBC Sports, along with six broadcast windows on NBC.

“I know from firsthand experience how hard it can be to know this exists and to have role models who are athletes and independent,” Scaroni said. “So having this kind of exposure I know is going to serve so many young people around the globe just to see that there are people with disabilities that are thriving.”

For Bleakney, who competed in four Paralympics from 2000 to 2012 with limited or no broadcast coverage, the exposure is what he hopes to be the first of many steps in creating equity for para-athletes.

“These are positive steps forward, but at the same time we continually drive toward greater equity and recognition for our athletes in a way that is correlative toward their talents and the impact they have as athletes,” Bleakney said.

Dederick hopes that her impact is not only shown on the medal count but, more important, with the smile on her face.

“Definitely loving the experience is the most important part of the games,” she said. “I want to be able to say that this is the best experience of my life.”

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