"I wanna run until I can't run anymore."
Those were the words of Juliana Fortunato on Monday afternoon after the Baldwin High School senior finished a cross country race against visiting Fox Chapel Area High School.
Nothing out-of-the-ordinary about that, except that Fortunato's ultimatum was a grim possibility just less than four months before the race.
Fortunato was injured terribly when, on June 16, a motorist struck her while she was jogging near the Route 51-Brownsville Road intersection in Brentwood Borough. But on Monday, Fortunato realized her goal of returning to competitive running by placing 13th out of 34 runners in a narrow Baldwin loss.
It marked the final home cross country meet for Fortunato and her classmates, as her return coincided perfectly with Senior Day at Baldwin High Stadium, not to mention a "Pink Out" for Baldwin's co-Head Coach Bunny Schmidt, who is fighting cancer for the third time.
Schmidt, who has endured two battles with breast cancer and has since been diagnosed with bone cancer, knows a thing or two about surviving. And the two women were fittingly co-honored on Monday.
"She's quite a fighter, and I really respect that," Schmidt said of Fortunato before Baldwin took on Fox Chapel Area. "I know what that's like in many ways myself, so when I look at her, it reminds me that life goes on."
Everything about Fortunato's accident in Brentwood in June looked and sounded bad, from the noisy emergency sirens to the blood on the road.
"It's hard when you're a parent," her mother, Susan, said of the accident during an interview in August, "and you get that call that, for every parent, is their worst nightmare: 'Do you have a daughter who's a runner? She's on her way to Mercy Hospital.'
"You can't get there fast enough."
Susan has not divulged exact particulars of her daughter's injuries—"I don't want anybody to limit her," Susan said—but it is known that Juliana's many injuries included her mouth being wired shut, multiple broken bones and a severe concussion. She still does not remember the accident.
But by August, she was steadily recovering and was walking an hour per day, sometimes alongside her other co-head coach, Rich Wright.
And on Monday, despite her trainers' assertions that she is not at an optimal running level, Fortunato grinded out 5,000 meters in gusty, brisk conditions on an Achilles tendon that she said was screaming at her the whole time.
"I was going to finish whether I was going to be crawling or running," the student-athlete with a 4.0-plus GPA said after the race.
She sprinted across the finish line.
Watch the video above to see some of Fortunato's moving, emotional race on Monday.
Race Results (Girls)
Fox Chapel 28, Baldwin 31 (lowest score wins)
Baldwin's top five:
1.) Ashley Czerniewski-Hagan, Sr., 20 minutes, 32 seconds
2.) Alexis Barr, Fr., 21:17
5.) Erica Koenig, Fr., 21:27
11.) Alicia Mastrioanni, Jr., 22:49
12.) Annie Chester, Sr., 22:57
- Fortunato placed 13th in 23:09.
Race Results (Boys)
Baldwin 17, Fox Chapel 38 (lowest score wins)
Baldwin's top five:
1.) Christian Labash, Sr., 17 minutes, 23 seconds
2.) George Kelly, Jr., 18:00
3.) Mike McLaughlin, Jr., 18:01
5.) Dennis Doyle, So., 18:17
6.) Colin McLaughlin, Sr., 18:21
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