Tragedy doesn’t stop record-setting distance runner Emily Perona
April 16, 2014 | Bryce Wilks
A lot can happen in four years. It’s enough time for many Evangel students to advance all the way from freshman move-in day to graduation.
When sophomore track star Emily Perona laces her running shoes May 24 at the NAIA National Championships in Gulf Shores, Alabama, it will mark nearly four years since a catastrophic event threatened her life and should have certainly ended her running career.
“I like showing others what God can do through my running” Perona says. “Without His healing, there is no way I would be here.”
Out of nowhere
Just weeks before Perona’s junior year of high school in St. James, Missouri, she and several classmates were headed to Six Flags in St. Louis for a day of fun.
The group was 12 miles from its destination when their school bus slammed in to a truck in front of them on Interstate 44. Riding near the rear, Perona stood up and was pinned by a second bus that smashed through the back.
Perona’s pelvis was fractured, and she was transferred to multiple hospitals before landing at Barnes-Jewish Hospital for a stabilizing surgery. It could have been worse — had she not stood up with the initial impact, a vital organ might have been crushed instead.
The consequences of the crash were severe. One of Perona’s classmates was killed, along with the driver of another vehicle.
Perona’s fracture and surgery left her right leg half an inch shorter than her left. Sciatic nerve damage also caused drop foot, a condition that didn’t allow her to raise her foot.
It took months of physical therapy for Perona to regain lost function, and she still wears a special insole in her right shoe to even the stride of her shorter leg.
Overcoming the wreckage
Prior to the accident, Perona had her sights set on a collegiate running career. The dream served as motivation during a grueling rehabilitation process.
Six months after the accident she was able to run with an ankle brace, albeit slowly.
“My times weren’t very good,” Perona says. “But I wanted to get back and run for my high school during the spring season.”
During that season, veteran Evangel track coach Lynn Bowen was notified with Perona’s race times and story. He invited her to campus for a visit and was struck by her determination.
“When I saw the type of person Emily was, I bought in and knew she could help inspire and lead our team,” Bowen says. “We are looking for quality individuals, not just runners, and Emily fit that.”
The feeling was mutual for Perona, who immediately felt at home at a place where her passions for running and glorifying God meshed so well.
“When I met with my admissions counselor and she prayed with me, I knew this was where I was supposed to be,” Perona says.
Pushing New Limits
The 3k, 5k and 10k were all in Perona’s plans for events in which she would compete at Evangel. What she didn’t see coming was success in two long distance events, the half-marathon and marathon.
Perona was recruited by former teammate Brandon Hoffman (‘13) to train in the Lydiard Method for the marathon.
“I was scared at the thought of attempting a marathon, but Brandon was a mentor and helped me train by putting in a lot of miles every day,” Perona says.
For three weeks leading up to last year’s national qualifier, nerve pain made it hard for Perona to walk, let alone run 13.1 miles. She was faced with the choice of attempting the run or pulling out.
“I felt God telling me to trust Him to bring me through it,” Perona says. “I made it, and qualifying for nationals was a reminder that He is showing others His power through me.”
Perona’s biggest goal for her running career is to become an All-American in the marathon. In one of the next three national meets, she will need to place among the top 8 in the entire NAIA to achieve it.
Perhaps a new training partner will help push her to those heights. Perona’s younger sister Hannah will join Evangel’s team next year after signing a letter of intent this week. Hannah was just a few rows from Emily on the bus when it wrecked, but escaped without any serious injuries.
A lot can happen in four years. And if the Perona sisters’ history is any indication, a lot will.