Riding High (and Fast)

Shawn Morelli, '98, is currently the top-ranked female rider in the world in her classification and was nominated for the ESPY Award “Best Female Athlete with a Disability.”

Shawn Morelli, '98, is currently the top-ranked female rider in the world in her classification and was nominated for the ESPY Award “Best Female Athlete with a Disability.”

Credit: Penn State Behrend

A Behrend alumna, who was injured while serving in the U.S. Army, will compete in the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janerio

In 2007, while deployed in Afghanistan as an Army engineer officer, Shawn Morelli ’98 was seriously injured by an improvised explosive device. The explosion resulted in neck and nerve damage, brain trauma, and blindness in her left eye.

Morelli was placed in a Warrior Transition Unit in Kansas City, Kansas. The ensuing months were painful, physically and mentally.

“I was having issues with depression, and I kept wondering what I would be able to do on my own again,” recalls Morelli, who was first called into active duty in July 1998. “I realized that they were probably going to retire me no matter what.”

One prevailing thought kept her going.

“I just kept thinking, ‘This is not where I want to be in life. I want to do something. I want to do something better,’” said Morelli, who majored in History while at Penn State Behrend. “I kept fighting every day to take another step.”

Enter para-cycling.

A doctor suggested that Morelli, a lifelong athlete, try cycling.

Morelli, a Saegertown, Pennsylvania. native, played on the Behrend Lions soccer team for four years and played softball in her senior year. After enlisting in the Army, she began running marathons and joined the All Army Women’s Soccer Team.

Learning how to para-cycle presented a whole new challenge.

“It was like starting from scratch,” Morelli said. “In my mind, I realized I could not give up on riding a bike. I figured that if I could relearn to ride a bike, I could relearn almost anything. In the moment, that’s what I needed to get myself through.”

A year later, Morelli had mastered the sport.

In 2010, she competed in her first Warrior Games, a multi-sport event for wounded, injured, or ill service personnel. Two years later, she took part in her first national race, which is where she caught the attention of the United States Para-Cycling Team.

“They were like, ‘Wow, where did she come from and where does she live?’” Morelli said. “After that, I got invited to some camps and was put on the team.”

She quickly racked up accomplishments. In 2014, she won her first world championship, earning the title of Union Cycliste Internationale Road World Cup Overall Champion. She’s currently the top-ranked female rider in the world in her classification. This year, she was nominated for the ESPY Award “Best Female Athlete with a Disability.”

Her success is the result of a rigid and intense training regimen.

“I have anywhere between two to three workouts a day between my time on the bike and my time in the gym,” she said. “Then, when you add in my physical therapy and my neurological appointments, it’s really a lot of time. If I’m not training, I’m at a doctor’s appointment. If I’m not at a doctor’s appointment, I’m sleeping, so I can recover and train for the next day.”

Currently, she is training to represent the U.S. Para-Cycling Team in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games. It will be her first time representing our country in the games.

“It’s a huge honor to be able to wear my country’s colors on that international stage,” Morelli said. “I’m not just excited to represent my country, but also my family, my friends, and my hometown. It’s one of those things that every kid dreams about.”

Morelli has come a long way in the nine-plus years since her accident, but she said that she still struggles with the idea of sharing her story. She acknowledges that traumatic events affect people in different ways, but she offers one piece of advice for anyone facing difficulty.

“Every day gets a little better than the day before it,” said Morelli, who now resides in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “Whether you see it in that moment or you see it later, you will realize that. I think for some people, coming to that realization is the hardest part. When you have a life-changing event, you might think your life is over, but there’s always some place you can go, and it’s usually up.”