Suzanne Arenal (right) and Keely Whelan (left) race for the finish at the Laguna Hills XC Invitational. (Photo by Hannah Schoenbaum)
Corona del Mar High School

Sophomore runner Suzanne Arenal inspires others one step at a time

When you fall down, you have to pick yourself up and try again. For sophomore distance runner Suzanne Arenal, this saying, in a much more literal sense, is the basis on which she built her cross-country career.

At the age of ten months, Arenal was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. The doctors predicted that she would experience little improvement and might never be able to walk, run, or participate in sports.

Strengthening exercises allowed Arenal to learn how to walk on her knees at age two. She began using a walker and received her first set of AFO’s (Ankle-Foot Orthotics), which she relied on for stability through the second grade.

Despite the limitations of her disability, Arenal participated in as many activities as physically possible.

“I was limited for sure, but I never really felt like I was. I did the activities I could, and cheered on my classmates if I couldn’t participate. My experience with the walker felt normal to me because I never knew any other way,” said Arenal.

In elementary and middle school, Arenal played soccer and basketball. She also tried equestrian, karate, dance, and cross-country.

“I always loved playing any sport and being part of a team,” said Arenal. “I knew I wasn’t as athletic as others, and I knew I would be falling a lot, but I enjoyed being able to participate.”

She began running in the fourth grade, but did not get serious until middle school. Her current head coach Bill Sumner first met Arenal while he was speaking at a Lincoln Elementary School assembly. She joined his running club, Cal Coast, at age eleven.

“My first time watching Suzanne try to run, she could barely shuffle fifty yards, but she had fire in her eyes that told me she wanted to prove to people that she could be a runner,” said Sumner.

Her early running form was described by her coaches as a “side-to-side shuffle.” She wore leg braces that came up above her ankles, disabling all ankle movement and making it difficult for her to run with the proper form.

Arenal faced many challenges when she began her cross-country career.

“Her parents have told us how much pain Suzanne often experiences and how badly her feet bleed while running, yet we would never know this from Suzanne, as she never complains. Although she may be in pain, she does not stop, which sets an incredible example for everyone else,” said Sarah Reyna, one of the CdM cross-country coaches.

Arenal repeatedly fell down on her runs, often slicing open her knees and elbows.

“Suzanne has difficulty picking her legs up so sometimes she falls, especially during races when she is covering unknown terrain and running faster than usual, but she always gets up, brushes herself off, and keeps going. We can all learn a little something from Suzanne,” said Reyna.

When Arenal ran with the Cal Coast team, she was often in the back of the group of eight to fourteen year olds. Despite her slower pace, Arenal ran as fast and far as she could.

“I was instantly struck by her determination, her coach-ability, and her tremendously contagious smile,” said Craig Williams, one of the CdM cross-country coaches.

She may have started at the back of the group, but her coaches helped Arenal work on her balance and running form. Today, Arenal runs without any leg braces. She now runs the same workout as her teammates, finishing when they finish.

“She is now so fast that I can no longer keep up with her. She doesn’t want or expect special treatment and doesn’t even seem to consider doing anything less than what we ask of all the girls,” said Reyna.

“No longer at the back, Suzanne’s smile is just as big as ever,” commented Williams.

In eighth grade, Arenal ran three miles in about 38 minutes. Last year, she got her time down to 27:15, and this year, her personal record was a 23:43.

“Imagine how much hard work it took her to make that big of an improvement in a cross-country race. Not many people can run three miles under eight minutes per mile,” said Williams.

When Arenal first ran a one mile time trial with Coach Sumner, her time was about 18 minutes. Now, her personal record is a 7:24 minute mile. Most able-bodied kids can only dream of running a mile as fast as Arenal.

Arenal may be faster and stronger now than when she began running, but she still falls down during most races.

“I tease Suzanne that her trademark is crossing the finish line with bloody knees, while still improving her time,” Williams said.

Last year, Arenal ran a race where she fell three times. Her knees and elbows were covered in dirt and dripping blood, yet she still finished the race with a new personal record, beating her previous record by over a minute.

“Surprisingly, I am pretty good at falling. I’ve learned that falling is only an advantage to me because every time I’ve fallen, I’ve had a personal record and gotten motivated to run faster,” said Arenal.

One of Arenal’s proudest moments was when she ran eight miles with the CdM summer running group last summer.

“Several girls were apprehensive about running so many miles, but when Suzanne stated she was going to run the entire eight miles (which she did), the other girls decided to run the whole way too. She just has this inspiring way about her,” said Reyna.

“Suzanne is a team player in every sense of the word. She’s supportive of every other runner. She encourages all others by her words, as well as her actions,” commented Jennifer Buckley, one of the CdM cross-country coaches.

“Running has shown me the rewarding feeling of love for others. Instead of being jealous, I cheer them on, and they inspire me to work harder to be as good as them one day,” said Arenal.

Arenal’s teammates will have the opportunity to cheer her on when she races in the Paralympics. She is currently training to run the 100 and 200 meter dashes.

“The thing I find most inspiring about Suzanne is that she hasn’t let her physical challenges stop her from pursuing anything she wants to do, including running. She has a positive outlook on life, despite the difficulties she has faced, and she refuses to make excuses. When I’m struggling during a run, I think of Suzanne, which makes me dig in deeper,” commented Reyna.

Arenal is truly an inspiration to the people around her. “Suzanne has inspired me to never give up,” shared Williams.

“She is one of my heroes,” Sumner shared.

Arenal hopes to inspire more runners through the creation of her club, CP in Motion, in which Arenal and Sumner will be helping kids and teens with cerebral palsy and other disabilities learn to run (cpinmotion.blogspot.com).

“My overall goal for this club is to inspire kids to not be afraid to push the limits and strive for their goals. I want the kids to feel like they’re in a safe place where they can have fun and be themselves,” said Arenal.

Whether she is finishing a race with bloody knees, or teaching disabled kids to run, Arenal inspires the people around her and teaches them that when you fall down, you have to pick yourself up and try again.