Suzanne Scott ’17 has always had a passion for stories. But in her own personal tale, the sport of swimming captured her attention long before she decided to earn her communications degree from UCCS or embark on a career of helping others at the YMCA.
At the age of 12, Scott, who was born with Spina Bifida and mild nerve damage in her legs, entered tryouts to become a Paralympic swimmer.
“My family and I happened to catch highlights of the Athens Paralympic games that were being shown on TV,” Scott recalls.
For Scott, who grew up in an athletic family, the opportunity to prove that she could compete on an elite level despite her so-called disability was a dream come true.
“I wasn’t very good at traditional sports in my small hometown just because of the weakness in my legs,” Scott explains. “I started swimming when I was nine and was immediately attracted to not having to compete with gravity and just being free in the water.”
According to Scott, the paralympic swimming system is divided into a scale of classifications, with one being the most disabled and ten being the least disabled. After being classified as a “10” during her tryout in Michigan in 2004, Scott went on to make the national team and qualified for the Paralympic Swimming World Championship in South Africa in 2006.
Then, at 15, she became a resident at the United States Olympic Training Center (USOTC) and moved to Colorado Springs. Once there, she trained day in and day out to become the best.
“When I was competing, my priority was my sport,” Scott says. “I wanted to be able to say at the end of all my races that I had given everything I had.”
Before competing and winning both Bronze and Silver medals in the 2008 Beijing Summer Games and the 2012 London Summer Games, respectively, Scott and her team were doing two swim practices per day, plus weights or cardio, and a Saturday morning session.
All this training and competing took its toll, however.
After returning from London, Scott found out she would need surgery to correct a serious spinal issue complicated by her Spina Bifida. While recovering, she reassessed her love of stories, and her desire to get an enriching education, then decided to retire from the Paralympics in early 2014.
By that time, Scott had been taking occasional classes at Pikes Peak Community College to earn her Associates in General Studies. This degree, along with some positive encouragement from her teammates, empowered Scott to apply for the prestigious El Pomar Fellowship through the Team USA Athletic Career and Education (ACE) program.
During the two-year, full-time position at El Pomar, which pairs hands-on program management with theoretical leadership and nonprofit studies, Scott was drawn toward getting a Bachelor of Arts in Communication from UCCS to further kickstart her career.
Fortunately, UCCS’ flexible classes allowed her to go to school while finishing the demanding fellowship.
“I was attracted to UCCS because of the accessibility for students who also had a full-time job,” Scott remembers.
After graduating in 2017, Scott was able to get an internship with Catholic Family Charities to hone her communications expertise. This experience, which coincided with the 2016 Rio Summer Games, then compelled her to work for an organization that paired community outreach with physical health and wellbeing. Enter the YMCA.
First, Scott was hired part-time in the YMCA’s Membership Department, then she accepted a grant-funded position in its Population Wellness department where she coordinated initiatives like “Generation Wild,” which helps underserved youths get outside and be active.
Now, Scott is handling communications within the business office, ensuring that the YMCA’s altruistic mission continues during COVID-19.
“It’s definitely been an interesting time for the YMCA and things people have declared ‘gyms,’” Scott explains. “But we offer so much more — we’ve been providing critical childcare during the closure and also reaching out to seniors [to] combat that isolation and loneliness they’ve been feeling.”
In assisting the most vulnerable among us, Scott often reflects on the stories of her fellow athletes as a reminder that people are more than just the label they’re given. Paralympians, she believes, are just as capable as able-bodied Olympians, if not more so.
“I’ve seen a double amputee climb the incline in Colorado Springs using just his hands,” Scott said. “I’ve seen people who are completely blind sprint as fast as they can. So I have always been inspired by my teammate’s stories and their overcoming of obstacles.”
To this end, Scott has also been elated to see that things are becoming more equal and inclusive for paralympians overall. Just last year, the U.S. Olympic Committee changed its name to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which was a major win for disabled athletes.
“As time has gone by, things are becoming a lot more available to paralympic athletes,” Scott says. “When I was training, about 10 years ago, the opportunities weren’t as well known. I’m excited with the direction that it has been heading.”
This spirit of new growth and opportunity is what keeps Scott motivated everyday. Win or lose, she knows that achieving a dream, like being a two-time Paralympic medalist, comes down to a bit of ingenuity and a lot of perseverance.
“My advice to athletes, the disabled community, and people in general is to be open to creative ways to make your dreams happen,” Scott says. “When you have a dream, nothing will beat hard work and determination.”