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    Thursday, June 13, 2024

    Lebanon athlete reframes disability as ability, chosen as ‘Inspiration Team’ member

    Samara Johnson was one of 12 participants chosen by the Hartford Marathon Foundation to represent the 2022 Inspiration Team at the Eversource Hartford Marathon and Half Marathon on Oct. 8. This photo was taken last year when she ran in the organization’s half marathon. Photo by Hartford Marathon Foundation
    Samara Johnson (center) and her team (alumni from Eastern Connecticut State University and one friend) won the RiMaCon women’s relay race in August for the second year in a row. The race in August 2022 started in Lincoln, Rhode Island, continued on to Blackstone, Mass., and ended in Hartford. The event was sponsored by Hartford Marathon Foundation. Photo by Hartford Marathon Foundation

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

    Beginning at age 2, Johnson wore braces – sometimes during the day, sometimes at night and sometimes both. In fourth grade, she was fitted with stretching casts for one month, which caused excruciating, burning pain. Afterwards, she endured what felt like electric shocks while walking for another year.

    Adapting to her learning disabilities, including a depth-perception-tracking condition, and her “toe walking” issue, reframing everything as “abilities,” Johnson attended special-education classes and physical-therapy sessions in elementary school.

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

    Johnson joined track 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 a minor in philosophy, sociology and women's studies.

    “I have a passion and love for running, so when I would trip and fall, I wouldn't beat myself up for it. I would just get back up, and I'd want to keep going,” said Johnson during a telephone interview, because “running is empowering for me.”

    After learning from ECSU track and cross-country Coach Kathy Manizza that “you're supposed to be on your toes when you're running, it clicked for me that my tip-toe walking is really a strength when it comes to running,” she said.

    Johnson went on to graduate with a master's degree in social work from the University of Connecticut.

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

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

    This year’s theme for the Inspiration Team, “Who Powers You?” asked nominators “What person has really empowered you to do hard things like train and run a marathon, train and run your first 5K?” said Beth Shluger, chief executive officer and president of HMF, during 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 in the bottom half of the finishers, but they are inspiring in their grit and determination to take on the challenge.”

    She said they chose Johnson “because she epitomizes somebody who would empower somebody else.”

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

    The HMF campaign also allowed all participants in the race to honor and highlight someone that “powers” them to cross the finish line.

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

    Manizza said during a telephone interview that she feels Johnson’s spirit helped her overcome any physical disabilities she has.

    “I think she is still inspiring. She is very grateful for everything that anyone does for her. She is running a marathon three years after graduating from college, which isn’t that unusual, but it’s not that common either. She just loves everything that she can do. She’s excited about everything, and that’s contagious and it helped the entire team. So she went from not making the (cross-country) team as a freshman to being 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 incredible improvement. You just don’t see that kind of improvement normally in a college kid.”

    While working as the ECSU cross-country team’s manager her freshman year, Johnson continued to train.

    Manizza said one of her most gratifying moments in coaching was when Johnson made the track team, because she had to run a 6-minute mile to qualify. “Her teammates took turns pacing her through the mile and had grown to love her.”

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

    When Johnson finally finished one mile in just under 6 minutes, this 4-foot, 8-inch, 80-pound athlete “just propelled herself into the arms of one of her teammates,” Manizza said laughing. “It was a sweet moment and made me feel good that the rest of the team was that compassionate to Samara.”

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

    Looking back, Samara Johnson’s mother, Jerree Johnson, thinks her daughter was destined to be a runner. Shortly after learning to stand at about 1 year of age, Jerree said Samara stood up and walked around a portion of their home 55 times.

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

    Johnson said running helps her to process the day and think about how she is doing internally in the moment. “It really reminds me of my inner fire and strength.”

    Samara is also passionate about advocating for the way society views disabilities, which she reframes as “abilities.”

    She said there is a lot of focus on people with disabilities and having to overcome them. “I feel like there's not a lot of focus on society and the world on overcoming disability discrimination.”

    Now she reframes and advocates for people. “Disabilities aren't bad. It’s not bad vision. It’s not bad. I just have my own abilities - and disabilities are abilities.”

    Mean-spirited behaviors and exclusions she faced mainly as a teenager, because of her disabilities, stem from ableism and underestimation of abilities, said Samara, who cofounded the ECSU Diverse Ability Club and worked on disability rights on campus while a student.

    Her message to others with disabilities: “Don't internalize or see your disabilities as you’re bad or less than others. You're your own unique, individual person."

    Samara said there is so much she loves about being a licensed social worker, especially the fact that social justice and people’s inherent dignity and worth are a large part of their code of ethics.

    Her future goals include continuing to be a social worker her entire life, running longer marathons and beating her last personal records, and qualifying for the Abbott World Marathon Majors, the six largest and most renowned marathons in the world, which take place in Boston, New York, Chicago, London, Berlin and Tokyo.

    Jan Tormay, a longtime Norwich resident, now lives in Westerly.

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