Wheelchair Racers Gain Exposure And Prize Money At The New York City Marathon

by Lynn Rutherford

(Photo by U.S. Paralympics Track & Field)

Susannah Scaroni crosses the finish line of the NYC Marathon. (Photo: Getty Images)

NEW YORK — When Susannah Scaroni won the 51st running of the TCS New York City Marathon on Sunday, she earned $125,000 in prize money: $25,000 for winning the women’s professional wheelchair division, $50,000 for finishing atop the Abbott World Marathon Majors points race, and a $50,000 bonus for breaking the course record.


This is the first year wheelchair racers were eligible for the $50,000 bonus, the same amount offered to open division racers.


“To have an elite level in adaptive sports is just as important if not more important (than in open sports), to help encourage everyone to be more active,” said Scaroni, a three-time U.S. Paralympian who clocked in at 1 hour, 42 minutes and 43 seconds, eclipsing Tatyana McFadden’s mark of 1:43:04 set in 2015.


“I think you need equal pay so that people realize (wheelchair racing) is an elite sport — it’s not something that is recreational, it is a career progression,” she added. “And people who are Para athletes are elite athletes, just the same as the other runners are.”


Sunday’s marathon had a $870,000 total guaranteed prize purse, but wheelchair paychecks are not on par with those of the runners. Kenyans Evans Chebet and Sharon Lokedi each earned $100,000 for winning, respectively, the men’s and women’s open divisions. But the bonuses helped Scaroni and men’s wheelchair winner Marcel Hug of Switzerland, who also set a new course record, gain ground.


“If you look at the overall prize money for each and every marathon, we’ve had that increase, but there still needs to be a little bit more,” five-time winner McFadden, who placed eighth on Sunday, said. “You know me, I always want more, but for the right reasons. But it’s been really great.”


Paying equivalent bonuses is one of the most visible steps that marathon organizer New York Road Runners has taken to elevate the marathon’s wheelchair division. Efforts for inclusivity go beyond the bonuses, though.


“We were one of the first marathons to have a professional wheelchair division way back in 2000, and we continue to push the sport of wheelchair racing and try to elevate it,” Sam Grotewold, director of professional athletes at NYRR, said.


He points to the equal exposure offered to wheelchair athletes, who participate in the same publicity events, including a day of media interviews and post-event press conferences, as the runners.


“Some of the wheelchair division athletes we have with us are global superstars, and representation matters,” Grotewold said. “So for a kid who may be in a wheelchair, to see someone like Daniel Romanchuk or Susannah Scaroni have the success they have and the profile they have, that has the ability to inspire and be really exciting.”


Daniel Romanchuk, who won in New York in 2018 and 2019 and placed second to Hug this year, agrees that publicity is key to expanding participation in adaptive sports.


“Often times, the first barrier is knowing they exist and knowing where your local program is,” the two-time U.S. Paralympian said. “I’ve had people message me living 20 minutes away from a program asking how they can get involved, and I say, ‘You’re right nearby.’”


Added publicity and equal treatment draws sponsors, which not only offer wheelchair athletes financial support but also helps spread awareness.


“I am sponsored by Clif Bar, and they ran a picture of me out training on one of the (limited edition) bars for about a year,” Romanchuk said. “That is great publicity in general for the sport. It shows people the sport exists and wheelchair racers are out there.”


McFadden, the decorated U.S. Paralympian who first competed in New York in 2009, said NYRR has come a long way in terms of offering equal media opportunities.  


“I remember when press conferences were separate and we went at different times, and we lost that media,” she said. “And I think so many athletes have been such an incredible voice and said, ‘Hey, we want this,’ and the marathon has listened.”


NYRR further elevated the wheelchair races this year by streaming them, along with the running races, from start to finish via its mobile app, offering what Grotewold called “true total exposure.”


“I didn’t think this would happen this year, and (NYRR) said, ‘The public demanded it,’ which is great to hear,” McFadden said. “Give the public what they want.


“It’s been so nice just even going through Central Park and people being like, ‘Tatyana, hey, we’re really excited to cheer you on,’ and finding that the general public is following you. That wasn’t necessarily there at the beginning of this. So the diversity has increased, and that makes me want to stay in the sport.”


Ted Metellus, NYRR’s senior vice president of events and race director of the marathon, pointed out that NYRR’s efforts to support wheelchair athletes extend far beyond the marathon, including the Rising NYRR Wheelchair Training Program, which offers youth (ages 6 to 21) with physical disabilities free weekly training sessions, in-school resources and competitive events.


“We are committed to supporting future athletes that are in wheelchairs, creating programs for them, engaging them, and then having professional athletes engage with youth and show them there is a way,” he said.


Scaroni, the newly crowned champion, agreed.


“I will always think like, I was a little kid once who had adult wheelchair racers as my role models,” she said. “And so to have a bigger stage for that, and to get to be a huge part of that, is the most important role I could ever have.”

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