Runner pushes brother with cerebral palsy during cross-country races

Susan Bergeman, 14, pushes her brother Jeffrey at every practice and meet.

For most, cross-country is an individual sport. But for siblings Susan and Jeffrey Bergeman, teamwork makes the dream work.

Jeffrey, 15, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy in 2008 after a heart rhythm disorder called long QT syndrome caused him to go into cardiac arrest at 22 months old. Due to lack of oxygen, the cardiac arrest also caused damage to his brain.

For his younger sister Susan, 14, this Jeffrey is the one she has always known and loved. The two are very close, she said.

"It’s a lot like a normal sibling relationship -- probably even closer," Susan said. "We fight, we laugh, we tease each other. I tell him everything, he tells me everything. That’s how it’s always been."

When Susan entered middle school, she wanted to compete in a sport after school. She decided cross-country would be a great sport not just for her, but also for her brother Jeffrey, too.

"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."

With both of them enrolled at Chippewa Falls High School in Wisconsin, Susan pushes Jeffrey in a wheelchair at every single practice. She said her brother’s positive attitude helps get her through the difficult training. Jeffrey is non-verbal, but Susan said he communicates with her through different noises and head turns that help her get through races.

"He’s really funny, probably the happiest kid I know. He always has a good attitude," Susan 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."

Jeffrey’s positive attitude not only helps his sister, but all of his cross-country teammates. Susan said at first, people were nervous around her brother and didn’t know what to do or how to act. But after getting to know Jeffrey, they’ve embraced him and even take turns pushing him at practice.

"Him being happy makes everyone around him happy," Susan said.

Susan also competes with Jeffrey in cross-country meets, but due to the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association rules, the siblings are only allowed to compete as exhibition runners, and their results do not count.

"We would love for them to change [the rules.] My brother and I are competitive people, and it's not really fair that we aren’t allowed to compete," Susan said. "Our coaches and our athletic director are working with us on that."

Susan said her ultimate dream is to have a competitive duo division added to running competitions so more teams like her and Jeffrey can compete.

"We would love to pave the way for runners that want to run with someone who can’t by themselves and make their path easier so they don’t have through these struggles," Susan said.