Janelle Noe’s inspiring story is one for the books. The 23-year-old senior at the University of Toledo qualified for the NCAA Track & Field championships on June 7 after coming back from a horrific accident that almost claimed her life.
In January 2016, Noe went to an off-campus party where she was expecting to hang out with some friends and act as a designated driver for anyone in need, since she doesn’t drink. Unfortunately, within an hour of showing up to the party, she was the victim of a prank gone wrong that saw the athlete receive second- and third-degree burns to 50 per cent of her body.
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The accident was entirely avoidable and one that Noe herself attempted to divert. An acquaintance and fellow athlete was walking around the house with a can of air freshener and a lighter.
“He took air freshener, and he was trying to light that on fire. And I told him, like, stop it, you’re an idiot. You’re going to catch the house on fire, basically,” Noe told WTOL 11 nearly a year after the incident.
But he didn’t heed her warnings. Soon, he took things to a much more reckless level and changed Noe’s life forever.
“Then next thing I know, he’s like walking in through the living room archway into another room. And he was walking towards me, and he had a candle, like this big lit candle in his hand. And down to his side, he was carrying a bottle of Everclear, which he had told me earlier that night, because I didn’t know what it was, that it was basically gasoline. And so the next thing I know, he like poured it on to the candle, and I was on fire,” she said. “That’s all I remember.”
Noe was rushed to the hospital where doctors discovered that she received severe burns, including third-degree deep burns, to half of her body. The student who caused the accident was sentenced to four months in prison and 800 hours of community service, half of which was carried out in a hospital burn unit.
“The ones on my chest were the deepest, and my neck, and they were concerned about those a lot. They said that if I would’ve burned seconds longer, I would’ve died, because the skin’s so thin there and you have all your vital organs right in this area,” she said.
Needless to say, the road to recovery was long and arduous for Noe, who recalls feeling “sad and hopeless” for the future. But when her doctor told her that she could start running again, things began to turn around.
Noe started by jogging around the yard, then around her neighbourhood until she was back on her school team. But even then, she struggled to get back to her pre-accident form.
“It basically put me back to below square one,” she said to Runner’s World magazine. “It was really frustrating for me. I would cry and get down on myself about it and I had to just get past that.”
By 2017, however, she was running within a half-second of her personal best, and by May of this year, she set a conference record in the 1500-metre at the Mid-American Conference Championships in Buffalo.
It was her performance at the NCAA East Preliminary Championships in Tampa last week where her talent and determination really paid off. The scars on her body affect her ability to regulate her temperature, and the weather was hot and humid in Florida. When her first race was moved to 2 p.m. from the evening, she was worried that the high heat would spell disaster.
But she ran that race and qualified for the next round. Two days later, she ran a personal best and qualified for the championships.
“When I crossed the finish line, I was so happy. I couldn’t stop saying, ‘I made it, I made it,’ because I couldn’t believe it.”
Noe still faces a number of challenges, not the least of which is the fragility of her skin, which needs to be protected from the sun at all costs. Then there’s the fact that she feels self-conscious about her scars. But she’s not about to let those challenges stand in her way.
“It gives me a mindset that I have had to probably work twice as hard to get to where I was or where I am,” she said. “If you put your mind and heart into what you want to do, you’ll be able to do more than you think is possible and you can really surprise yourself. I surprised myself.”
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