A pair of local college runners understand the term “going the distance” perhaps better than most, a quality that earns them ribbons on the track and, more recently, designation as January’s Hartford HealthCare Connecticut Courage Award winners.
The quarterly awards are given by the system, in association with the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA), to student athletes who demonstrate courage in the face of adversity. The honorees – chosen by a panel of writers, editors and sports information directors from CoSIDA, AP and College Hoops Illustrated — receive a plaque and a donation to their college’s general scholarship fund in their names.
Honored Jan. 28 at ceremonies with legendary marathoner Bill Rodgers were Samara Johnson, pictured above, a senior distance runner at Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU), and Weyassa “Ace” McAlister, a senior distance runner at Trinity College.
At 4 feet, 8 inches tall, Johnson runs cross country and track and field, as a middle-distance runner, for ECSU. A graduate of Lyman Memorial High School in Lebanon, she was born with multiple disabilities, including a depth perception tracking disorder that prevents her from driving, and a condition called “tip-toe walking” that required her to use leg braces as a child.
In addition, when she got to middle school, she began experiencing a digestive condition known as “leaky gut syndrome” and contends with non-classic congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which means her body has trouble generating the energy-producing chemical cortisol. All of these conditions caused emotional distress for Johnson as she faced people who were less than understanding of the accommodations she needed to succeed socially and academically.
At ECSU, Johnson participated in track for four years and cross country for three, earning a spot on the 2017 and 2019 Little East Conference championship teams in cross country. Off the track, she is a founding member of ECSU’s DiversAbility Club, a disability rights organization. After graduation, she plans to enroll in graduate school and hopes to pursue a career advocating for disability rights.
McAlister grew up in a small village in Ethiopia. At the age of four, his father died from water bacteria and the family lost contact with his mother. Ace and his sister lived with their grandparents, who were already caring for nine other children. For the next three years, the siblings ran six miles barefoot to school every day until his grandparents sent them to an orphanage.
When McAlister was 14, Steve and Rosemary McAlister from Massachusetts adopted him and his sister, bringing them to a country where they had to learn everything from speaking a new language to running in shoes. After graduating from high school and lettering in both track and soccer, he spent a post-graduate year at Northfield-Mount Hermon, a prep school in Massachusetts. Since arriving at Trinity in 2016, the 5-foot-9, 135-pound distance runner has earned numerous accolades in both track and cross country and was named co-captain for cross country in 2019.
“Hartford HealthCare is excited to recognize these two remarkable young student-athletes, who, despite setbacks, have overcome challenges to continue to perform their best as both scholars and athletes,” said Jeffrey A. Flaks, president and chief executive officer of Hartford HealthCare. “Our organization’s purpose is to help people live their healthiest lives, and both Samara and Ace’s courageous stories of recovery and perseverance are an inspiration to all.”
In May, one male and one female student-athlete will be chosen from the finalists as Hartford HealthCare Connecticut Courage Award Winners. Hartford HealthCare will donate $15,000 to the general scholarship funds for the student-athletes selected as finalists, with $2,500 being awarded in the names of each of the two winners and $10,000 on behalf of the other 10 finalists.
Sports information directors at all colleges and universities in Connecticut can nominate deserving male and female intercollegiate student-athletes through March 30 at HartfordHealthCareCourageAwards.com.
Photo Gallery: Samara Johnson (ECSU)
Photo Gallery: Weyassa “Ace” McAlister