Juliana Fortunato: Never a question that she would run again
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When Juliana Fortunato, of Whitehall, crossed the finish line at the Baldwin High School cross country meet last week, her mother, Susan Fortunato, admits it was an emotional moment.
“I was crying like a baby,” Susan said.
Most would agree the tears were justified. This was no ordinary race for Juliana, who has been an avid runner for years, and a member of the high school cross country team since she was a freshman.
“I love how I can think about everything, or I can think about nothing while on a run,” Juliana, 18, said. “I love knowing that no matter how hard of a day I have had, it can always be fixed with a nice long run.”
But, on June 16, a Saturday morning run turned tragic when Juliana was struck by a car at the intersection of Brownsville Road and Route 51 in Brentwood. Juliana was hurt seriously with multiple injuries, including a severe concussion and several broken bones.
Returning to race competitively with her Baldwin teammates at least one time became a long-sought goal for Juliana.
It took four painful months of rehabilitation and physical therapy to finally be cleared by her doctors. The hardest part about Juliana's rehab and work to return to running?
“The little injuries that have impeded my progress and made it slower than I'd hoped for,” she said.
It was a celebratory scene at the final home meet on senior day at Baldwin when Juliana made her triumphant return. Adding to the atmosphere, the team had declared a “Pink Out” in support of co-head coach Bunny Schmidt, who is battling cancer for the third time.
Juliana crossed the finish line in 13th (out of 34) place with a time of 23:09, well short of her personal best time. But it was a victory for Juliana and all those who have helped her get back to this point.
“It was the happiest I've felt in four months,” she said, “but I still have a long way to go. That race was just another step forward.”
The 5,000-meter cross country course at Baldwin is a grueling one by any standard, according to co-head coach Rich Wright.
“We have a lot of hills and concrete. It's difficult,” Wright said.
Susan recalled her daughter's first question in the trauma unit at UPMC Mercy Hospital: “Will I be able to run again?”
At the time, it was the furthest thing from Susan's mind. She was just happy her daughter was alive. But she wasn't surprised by her daughter's question.
“Juliana lives and breathes running; she loves it,” Susan said. “There was never a question if she would run again.”
Wright and Schmidt have been coaching Juliana for four years. They were not surprised by her determination either.
“She has an unbelievable work ethic, no matter what obstacle she has to overcome,” Wright said. “She is 100 percent committed to running and school work.”
Wright visited Juliana throughout the summer, walking with her around her neighborhood as she worked to get back to running condition.
He was thrilled with her performance at the Baldwin meet.
“I thought she did a tremendous job. I am sure there was a lot of mental and physical pressure on her during the race,” Wright said. “I think she feels bad she hasn't been able to contribute to the team as much.”
Wright acknowledged coaching Juliana during her rehabilitation has been a new experience. He worked with Juliana to modify practices to her specific needs ensuring she never exceeded prescribed limitations.
“She was very disciplined about it,” Wright said.
Juliana gave a talk to the team at the beginning of the year, relating to her teammates what they could learn from her horrific experience.
“I told them that, yes, running cross country is hard and painful; sometimes you will hate doing it,” she said. “But not being able to do it will cause you more pain than any hill or speed workout. Don't take advantage of it; cherish each run.”
Wright believes Juliana has the ability to compete at the next level, and is talking to coaches at Chatham University and Duquesne University about her.
For now, Juliana is looking forward to the indoor track season, which begins in December
As Susan said, “If Juliana's not running, she's not happy.”
The Pleasant Hills Rotary is sponsoring a wine tasting fundraiser, hosted by WPXI anchor Darieth Chisolm, on Nov. 2 from 6 to 9 p.m. at South Hills Country Club.
All proceeds will benefit the recovery efforts of Juliana Fortunato.
Tickets are $30 in advance, $35 at the door, and include hors d'oeuvres and wine tasting. For ticket information, call Jim Jones at 412-653-2000.
Jennifer Goga is a freelance writer.
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