Emelia Perry ran her first Broad Street Run in 2016 and happily finished the 10-mile race at an impressive clip of one hour, four minutes, and 45 seconds.
The following year, she had an equally good showing, completing the course just a smidgeon slower in one hour, six minutes and 17 seconds. On Sunday, Perry competed for the third consecutive year — but this time she competed in a wheelchair.
In June, Perry injured her spinal cord in a fall from a ladder while hosting a party on the roof of her West Philly apartment. Doctors at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania told her she had injured her T12 vertebra, located near the base of her spine, and was paralyzed from the waist down. They weren’t sure if she would ever walk again, much less run.
That’s a depressing diagnosis for anyone, especially someone who loves running and exercise as much as Perry does. But she didn’t let it stop her. She fought back with a vengeance. and less than a year after losing her ability to use her legs, she was back at the Broad Street Run, this time using her upper body to propel herself. She finished the race just a shade slower than she probably would have run it, crossing the finish line in one hour, eight minutes, and 38 seconds.
It’s really remarkable when you stop and think about it. That’s why I didn’t want to let this year’s race day memories fade without giving a shout-out to this brave young athlete. The 25-year-old Ursinus College graduate didn’t let her injury defeat her and keep her from getting back to what she loves doing. She kept on pushing, even though for now that means doing it from a wheelchair.
When I reached out to her on Sunday,
she was still weary from having competed earlier that day. Humble and soft spoken, she doesn’t recall much about that awful night of June 9, when she fell while descending a ladder. All she remembers is that she and her friends had been drinking wine and enjoying themselves at her party in honor of the full moon. The next thing she knew she was in an emergency room and unable to move her legs. Even lifting her arms was difficult. Her parents rushed from their native Japan to be by her bedside.
“They said they don’t know if I can or cannot walk again,” she told me in her lightly accented English. “But the doctors told me, ‘Usually like three to six months is when people see like the most recovery.”
Ever the optimist, she told herself, “at least they didn’t say no, that I was never going to be able to walk again.”
Perry drew strength from that and pushed herself to get back to her old life. These days, she’s living in an apartment in Center City. She works part time at Di Bruno Bros. and is trying to figure out what she’s going to do for a career. She graduated from Ursinus in 2015 with a degree in exercise science, thinking she might be a personal trainer or go into physical therapy. Friends help her get her wheelchair and racing chair to the Schuylkill River Trail so she can train for races — in November, she participated in the Rothman Institute 8K. She’s come a long way in such a short amount of time.
I had just come across the finish line myself on Sunday when I heard about Perry’s amazing accomplishment. I was so impressed that I went over to Perry, who was having a celebratory meal with her sister and a friend in the VIP area. I felt like high-fiving her. What fortitude. What strength.
“It’s easier to be happy than to be sad,” she said simply when I reached her by phone later.
Marissa Montenegro Matteo, a spokeswoman for Magee Rehabilitation, pointed out that “some folks, after their injury, it takes a little while for them to get back to the things that they used to enjoy doing.”
“Folks that come to Magee have had a life-changing event,” she added. “Their lives are changed, but that doesn’t mean their lives can’t be great. Emelia is proof of that.”