Lebanese athlete redefines disability as an ability, chosen as member of ‘Inspiration Team’

Samara Johnson was one of 12 participants chosen by the Hartford Marathon Foundation to represent Team Inspiration 2022 at the Eversource Hartford Marathon and Half Marathon on October 8. This photo was taken last year when she participated in the organization’s half marathon. Photo by the Hartford Marathon Foundation

Samara Johnson (center) and her team (Eastern Connecticut State University alumni and a friend) won the RiMaCon women’s relay race in August for the second year in a row. The August 2022 race started in Lincoln, Rhode Island, continued to Blackstone, Mass., and ended in Hartford. The event was sponsored by the Hartford Marathon Foundation. Photo by the Hartford Marathon Foundation

Born a month premature and weighing 3 pounds at birth, Samara Johnson of Lebanon was a “toe walker”, a condition that did not allow her to put her heel flat, creating stress on her toes, feet and his calves, which could then cause problems with his Achilles tendons and other issues.

From the age of 2, Johnson wore suspenders – sometimes during the day, sometimes at night, and sometimes both. In fourth grade, she was fitted with stretching casts for a month, which caused her excruciating, searing pain. Then she endured what felt like electric shocks while walking for another year.

Adapting to his learning disabilities, including a depth perception tracking condition, and his “walking on toes” problem, reframing everything in “abilities,” Johnson took education classes special education and physiotherapy sessions in primary school.

She continued to wear splints until age 14, when she briefly switched to a boot for a month. At 15, she just needed to stretch and go to physical therapy after school.

Johnson joined track and field teams in middle school, high school, and at Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU) where she graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in social work and minored in philosophy, sociology, and women’s studies.

“I have a passion and a love for racing, so when I stumbled and fell, I wouldn’t blame myself. I would just pick myself up and want to keep going, Johnson said in a phone interview, because “running gives me power.”

After learning from ECSU track and cross-country coach Kathy Manizza that “you’re supposed to be on your toes when you run, I realized that my tiptoe walking is really a strength when it comes to running,” she says.

Johnson went on to earn a master’s degree in social work from the University of Connecticut.

She remained an active runner, participating in several half marathons and winning four 5K races, one 3K race and one 4 mile race.

Johnson was one of 12 participants chosen by the Hartford Marathon Foundation to represent Team Inspiration 2022 (first established in 2011) at the Eversource Hartford Marathon and Half Marathon, founded in 1994. Noted for her strength and resilience , the Inspiration team will join thousands of people. will cross the finish line on October 8 – Samara’s first full marathon (26.2 miles). Last year, she participated in the organization’s half marathon (13.1 miles).

This year’s theme for the Inspiration team, “Who Powers You?” asked the nominators “Which person really gave you the power to do hard things like train and run a marathon, train and run your first 5K?” said Beth Shluger, chief executive and president of HMF, in a telephone interview.

“We’re not looking for the fastest people,” Shluger said. “These people are probably not going to win the race. They may come in the bottom half of graduating class, but they inspire with their courage and determination to rise to the challenge.

She said they chose Johnson “because she embodies someone who would empower someone else.”

“She is a young woman who has taken on more challenges in life than many of us and she never gives up. She is a great member of the team, she supports the rest of her teammates and inspires them. said Coach Manizza, who nominated her.

The HMF campaign also empowered all race participants to honor and highlight someone who was “pushing” them to the finish line.

Johnson said she was humbled and honored to be nominated and chosen as a member of Team Inspiration.

Manizza said in a phone interview that she believed Johnson’s spirit had helped her overcome her physical disabilities.

“I think she’s always inspiring. She’s very grateful for everything someone does for her. She’s running a marathon three years after graduating from college, which isn’t that unusual, but it’s not It’s not that common either. She loves everything she can do. She’s excited about everything, and it’s contagious and it’s helped the whole team. So she’s gone from not being part of the freshman (cross-country) team to be our fourth-best runner as a senior.

She noted that Johnson ran 30 minutes for 5K as a freshman and 19:40 (19 minutes, 40 seconds) as a senior, “just amazing improvement. You just don’t see that kind of improvement normally in a college boy.”

While working as manager of the ECSU cross-country team his freshman year, Johnson continued to train.

Manizza said one of her most rewarding moments as a coach was when Johnson made the track team as she had to run a 6-minute mile to qualify. “Her teammates took turns following her the mile and grew to love her.”

Johnson’s teammates not only accepted her, they encouraged her, embraced her challenges and helped her become the best person she could be, she said.

When Johnson finally completed a mile in just under 6 minutes, the 4-foot-8, 80-pound athlete “just propelled herself into the arms of one of her teammates,” Manizza said with a laugh. “It was a sweet moment and I felt good that the rest of the team was so compassionate towards Samara.”

Johnson qualified for the cross country team her second year – and continued on both teams until she graduated.

Looking back, Samara Johnson’s mother, Jerree Johnson, believes her daughter was destined to be a runner. Shortly after learning to stand at around 1 year old, Jerree said Samara got up and walked 55 times in part of their home.

“I think when she started running, I think we were all surprised by the speed and her love for doing it,” Jerree said, adding that Samara is a joy to her and her husband, Peter. “We always felt privileged to be his parents.”

Johnson said running helps her manage the day and reflect on how she is doing internally at the moment. “It really reminds me of my inner fire and strength.”

Samara is also passionate about advocating for society’s perception of disabilities, which she redefines as ‘abilities’.

She said the focus was on people with disabilities and the need to overcome them. “I feel like there’s not a lot of attention given to society and the world to overcome disability discrimination.”

Now she is reframing and defending people. “Disabilities are not bad. It’s not a bad view. It’s not bad. I just have my own abilities – and disabilities are abilities.

The petty behaviors and exclusions she faced primarily as a teenager, due to her disabilities, stem from ableism and underestimating abilities, said Samara, who co-founded the ECSU Diverse Ability Club and worked on disability rights on campus while a student.

Her message to other people with disabilities: “Don’t internalize or see your disabilities as bad or less than others. You are your own unique and individual person.”

Samara said she loves being a licensed social worker so much, especially that social justice and the inherent dignity and worth of people is a big part of their code of ethics.

Her future goals are to continue being a lifelong social worker, to run longer marathons and break her latest personal bests, and to qualify for the Abbott World Marathon Majors, the six biggest and most renowned marathons. in the world, taking place in Boston, New York, Chicago, London, Berlin and Tokyo.

Long-time Norwich resident Jan Tormay now lives in Westerly.

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