WEST SALEM, Wis. — To the uninitiated, a high school cross country race can appear to be an exercise of every man for himself.
The uninitiated would do well to meet 14-year-old Susan Bergeman.
With the pop of a starter pistol, a wave of runners speed off on their 3.1 mile course, while Susan bears down and spins the bearings on the wheelchair that carries Jeffrey Bergeman, Susan’s 15-year-old brother.
He loves running,” the Chippewa Falls High School runner says. “I think it helps me get even closer to my brother.”
Susan was a year old when Jeffrey, then 22-months-old, suffered a sudden cardiac arrest that deprived his brain of oxygen for 20 minutes. Jeffrey was left with severe brain damage and a diagnosis of cerebral palsy.
“They’ve always had this very close relationship and she’s never really seen him any other way,” Jess Bergeman, the mother of Susan and Jeffrey, says. “They’ve grown up together and this has always been her normal.”
The extent of Jeffrey’s injuries make traditional adapted high school sports impossible. So, his sister began thinking of activities in which she and her brother could compete as a team.
She didn’t have to look far for inspiration.
Both Jess and her husband are distance runners who’ve pushed Jeffrey in their races.
But Susan would be pushing more than her body weight – during a season’s worth of practices and meets – and doing it on uneven surfaces and grass.
Her mother suggested it might be too much for a 14-year-old. Perhaps it would be best to leave behind that pressure and run alone.
“And she looked at me as if I had grown two heads. She’s like, ‘This is not an option, we’re doing it.’” Susan’s mother recalls. “I was so proud of her.”
Roger Skifstad, Chippewa Falls’ cross county coach, admits to some early concerns.
“This is really unprecedented in Wisconsin,” the coach says. “I was worried, we were all worried.”
The only one not worried seemed to be Susan.
“I’m a very competitive person, so I almost feel like I have a point to prove,” she says.
Physically, Jeffrey is unable to answer. But her sister feels his presence and guts her way up the hill.
“Mentally I just push away the pain and focus on him enjoying it,” she says.
A smile spreads across Susan’s face as gravity gives her a hand on the downside of the hill.
The freshman runner also draws energy from the crowds gathered on each side of the course.
“Hearing everyone screaming and cheering gives me a big adrenaline rush,” she says.
Susan’s path to the starting line was no cakewalk either.
The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, which regulates the state’s high school sports, agreed that Susan and Jeffrey could run together, but not complete in an official capacity. So the sibling’s race times are neither logged nor counted like those of the other runners.
Their coach and parents are lobbying to change that. They envision a day when a duo division might be added to high school races to give more teens like Jeffrey a chance to participate with an able-bodied runner.
“We’d love to see the day where people aren’t like ‘That’s different. It’s just normal,’” Jordan Bergeman, Susan’s and Jeffrey’s dad, says.
Her race run in under 34 minutes, Susan catches her breath, then bends down to congratulate her older brother.
“Nice job, dude,” she tells Jeffrey, reaching out a hand to touch him. “We’re PR-ing at conference okay?”
A few minutes later, brother and sister will occupy a space near the back of the crowd as medals are handed out to runners with better times. Susan cheers loudly for her teammates.
“A sibling bond is stronger than any other bond that you could have,” she says.
Susan and Jeffrey didn’t leave the meet with a medal.