By Bailey Kozalla and Sydney Kightlinger, sports editor and editor in chief
The chant “We’re glad … you are … a Saegertown Panther” echoed through the Saegertown Junior-Senior High School auditorium at the kickoff of “Shawn Morelli Day” on Thursday.
A full day of activities took place to welcome home and celebrate the 1994 Saegertown graduate who recently won two gold medals for cycling at the Paralympics in Rio.
Morelli continued her education at Penn State and Webster universities in 1998 and 2001. After receiving her master’s degree, she became an engineer officer in the U.S. Army. During her time in the military, she enjoyed the camaraderie that came with serving her country.
“You just meet people who will always have your back no matter what,” Morelli said.
While serving in Afghanistan in 2007, Morelli was injured by an improvised explosive device. She suffered neck and nerve damage, traumatic brain injury and permanent blindness in her left eye. Morelli started cycling as part of a rehab program in 2009 and now has a total of six world championship cycling medals as well as the two golds she won in Rio in September.
Morelli’s story is a story of hope.
“Life is going to throw you a bunch of curveballs, and you may be on this one path to reach this one goal, and then all of a sudden, you go through this massive life-changing event,” she said. “When you hit that event, you have to face the fact that your life has changed. You have to make a decision and move towards a new dream and not let anything stop you.”
To stress the importance of that message, Morelli donated her first world championship jersey to the school. It will be displayed in a showcase at the school.
Keeping with the theme of overcoming obstacles, during English classes earlier in the week, all students wrote about obstacles they had overcome or were working to overcome.
Thirty students were selected by teachers to join Morelli and principal Tom Baker on stage. They received shirts with the motto: “You wish … you were … a Saegertown Panther” and that’s when the cheering started.
With Baker leading them, students and staff cheered Morelli, each other and their community.
“It was a great moment to be a Panther,” said Stacey Hetrick, journalism adviser. “Seeing those kids up on the stage with Shawn and Mr. Baker just gave me chills.”
Morelli also visited Saegertown Elementary School, where the students chanted “USA” to welcome her into the the gym.
She spoke briefly with students, answered questions, shook hands and gave kids the opportunity to see her gold medals.
After the assembly, Morelli spent the day touring the school and visiting with anatomy and biomedical engineering classes discussing her injuries, how she dealt with them, and the composition and functions of her bike. Her road bicycle is specifically designed to allow her to compete with full control of the gears on her left side and is custom made for her body.
She also attended a press conference hosted by the staff of The Panther Press, Saegertown’s student newspaper.
She shared what it was like to be honored at the White House after the wins in Rio. “You’re standing in the Blue Room, on the exact spot where President (Barack) Obama shakes hands with all those leaders from around the world,” said Morelli. “It’s pretty cool.”
“You don’t get an opportunity that often to have an Olympic champion visit the school where you are the principal,” said Baker. “It was an honor to have her here, and the door will always be open for her. She’s quite an inspiration.”
Throughout the day, Morelli challenged the students to create family from their school community.
“Are you willing to step out of the ‘in-group’ and bring people in to create a real student body family where you feel safe and supported when you walk in the doors to school?” she said.
Morelli added, “I don’t ever want to give up on myself or anything I am doing. It’s so easy (for me or anyone else) to say ‘I’m done.’ Life is full of dreams, and we want to achieve them, and everyone does. I refuse to give up.”
This story was originally published in The Meadville Tribune on Nov. 4, 2016.
Journalism Adviser, Saegertown Jr. Sr. High School