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Meet Susan And Jeffrey, The Sibling Cross Country Team That Is Making History.

sister pushing brother in wheelchair across field

To most, cross country racing is thought to be an individual sport. Susan and Jeffrey Bergeman, on the other hand, are on a mission to make that mindset a thing of the past.

The Bergeman family is an athletic bunch. Parents Jess and Jordan often participate in 5Ks, marathons, and triathlons. Jeffrey wanted to join in the fun, too, and with the help of a modified racing chair, he was able to do just that.

The need for the chair comes from Jeffrey’s severe brain damage and cerebral palsy, both of which he sustained from having cardiac arrest at 22 months old.

Ten months later, Susan was born, and a lifelong friendship began to bloom.

“They’ve always had this very close relationship and she’s never really seen him any other way,” Jess said. “They’ve grown up together and this has always been her normal.”

Seeing her parents and Jeffrey bond through racing, Susan decided to join them. At just 9 years old, Susan entered her first 5K with Jeffrey. Years later, they joined their middle school cross country guard – after some rules were established.

In Wisconsin, there had yet to be a duo like Susan and Jeffrey who wanted to join a cross country team. In order for them to participate, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association had to establish a division for runners with disabilities, classifying them as a “duo team.”

Some of their guidelines include starting behind everyone else, not passing any participants unless they are walking or injured, and not passing the finish line until all the other runners have finished.

If you’re wondering how these siblings can win with those kinds of rules, the answer is they can’t. They’re considered “exhibition runners” and can’t be included in the final results. As much as the Bergeman family didn’t agree with these rules when they were presented, Susan was just excited to bond with her brother.

“We like spending time together, and this is a way we can spend time together after school,” Susan said. “It’s something he couldn’t do on his own, so this way we can be active and do a sport together.”

Although Jeffrey is nonverbal, he doesn’t need words to spread positivity and joy, something people quickly learn about him. That includes his cross country teammates, who, according to Susan, were a bit nervous around him at first. Now, he’s so loved that other runners will take turns pushing him at practice.

“He’s really funny, probably the happiest kid I know. He always has a good attitude,” his sister said. “He’s so hardworking. He’s so strong. That’s something I admire about him. It’s powerful to see him go through these challenges.”

Running as a pair isn’t easy. They each go to every single practice and meet, all while Susan is pushing Jeffrey in a modified racing chair across uneven surfaces and grass. No matter how difficult it can get, Susan can always count on Jeffrey to hype her up! He does so by communicating through different noises and head turns.

“Running with my brother is even more fun because then you are not by yourself and you’re not just out there going alone. You have someone with you and there to encourage you along the way,” Susan said, “especially at those harder points.”

Although the WIAA rules were put into place for safety, after years of proving themselves, the Bergeman family thought things would have changed by now. That’s why, with help from their cross country coach, they’re lobbying to make races more inclusive.

“It’s kinda cool to think that we might be leaving a legacy from what we are doing,” Susan said. “We hope that anyone that might come after us is able to compete without having as many obstacles or barriers to overcome. That they experience a welcoming team like we have, and that they get to have the experience and joy of racing together as equals. It would be fantastic to have more students try out duo team running before we graduate, so that we can race them.”

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