College athletes honored with award for overcoming adversity

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STORRS, Conn. (AP) — Eastern Connecticut runner Samara Johnson doesn't want people to feel sorry for her.

The 4-foot-8 senior cross-country and track athlete is one of the first six college athletes nominated for the Hartford HealthCare Connecticut Courage Award and would rather be recognized for what what she can do.

The new award will be presented in May to one male and one female athlete from a Connecticut college or university who have demonstrated courage in overcoming a significant personal challenge. Two athletes are nominated for the award each month through April.

Johnson has myriad physical issues — depth perception disorder that prevents her from driving, leg problems that required braces as a youngster, the digestive condition “leaky gut syndrome" an an adrenal gland disorder.

Johnson wants to champion the rights of the disabled, who are more likely to face wage and job discrimination, inaccessible public accommodations and homelessness.

“I don't agree with the term ‘overcome disabilities,’” she said. “I feel that my disabilities are a part of me. I was born with that. This is really about breaking down barriers in society."

Other nominees include:

— Taylor Herd, a senior guard on the Quinnipiac University women’s basketball team. She tore two ligaments in the same knee during high school. Herd has starred at Quinnipiac while dealing with her father's health. He received an artificial heart transplant in 2017 and awaits organ donation.

— Chris Liggio, a senior running back for the University of New Haven football team, who lost his parents at age 15 to a murder-suicide. He was named a co-captain this past season and rushed for 415 yards and three touchdowns.

— Weyassa “Ace” McAlister, a senior distance runner for Trinity College. He was born in Ethiopia, spent time in an orphanage and for three years ran 6 miles each day to school.

Two other nominees will be recognized Wednesday: Sam Kramer, a senior point guard for Fairfield University’s women’s basketball team; and Eli Thomas, a senior and a former member of the University of Connecticut football team.

Kramer's father died in December 2018 from a rare immune disease that led to non-Hodgkin T-cell lymphoma. She played the rest of that season and is a captain for the Stags this season.

Thomas had a stroke before a weightlifting session in October 2018. He returned to the team after extensive rehabilitation and had to learn to speak again. He was not cleared to compete but was named a team captain. He won the team's Alumni Award, presented to a senior who is considered the ultimate team player.

Thomas plans to graduate in May and transfer to a school that will let him play football while he works toward a graduate degree in counseling. Even if he can't play again, he hopes his story inspires others.

“I've never been a quitter,” he said. “I just feel I'm not done yet. I'm never about quitting. I literally can't.”

The Courage award winners will be chosen by a panel from the College Sports Information Directors of America, The Associated Press and College Hoops Illustrated. Hartford HealthCare will donate a total of $15,000 to the general scholarship funds of the honorees’ schools — $1,000 in the name of each finalist and $2,500 in the name of the winners.

The awards are presented by former basketball star Rebecca Lobo, who also will be part of the selection panel.

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