Julia Cusatis spends her days like most teens, finishing her homework, listening to music and training and competing with the cross country and track and field teams.
However, while it is not visible, the St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy junior has an added obstacle not so typical for a teen — the challenges and pain of juvenile arthritis. Sometimes, taking notes in class or even opening a jar in the kitchen is far from easy.
At cross country practices this past fall, her teammates hardly knew it was an issue.
“Julia never really complains, and when she does it’s usually pretty minimal,” said fellow junior Sera Mazza. “Like on the cold days she’ll mention it, bring it up, but she’ll never actually complain about it and she’ll still push through the workouts the same as everyone else.”
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She pushed through so well, she won the District 6 Class A race in late October, then finished 12th at the PIAA Championships, helping the team to a second-place finish after state titles the previous two years.
Her determination and success led her to the Bronze Shoe Award for Pennsylvania, given annually by PennTrackXC and Lacelocker. She was given the award at the team’s banquet Thursday night, and it was announced Friday night on milesplit.com.
“It really caught me off guard,” she said. “It was really cool to have my teammates there when I learned that I got it. The whole thing is such an honor and I really appreciate it.”
She also has been honored with the Best Teammate Award with the St. Joseph’s track team twice — even though she had been injured and missed both those seasons.
Cusatis was diagnosed at 13 with juvenile arthritis, when the immune system attacks the tissue in and around the joints for unknown reasons. The Arthritis National Research Foundation estimates 300,000 children are affected by the swollen joints and rashes that may accompany the malady.
For Cusatis, at least so far, it has been an issue just in her hands, jaw and neck.
“I’ve been really lucky it hasn’t affected my knees, ankles or hips or anything running related,” she said. “It’s been kind of difficult.”
However, it also makes her more fatigued, piling onto the usual school work and training with a team that is annually one of the state’s best.
“That’s definitely something I have to work to manage,” Cusatis said. “Everybody’s already tired, and then adding more fatigue, that can be difficult.”
She said her teammates have been very understanding. Lady Wolves head coach Jayson Jackson said they do all they can to help, like having her do cross-training or lighten her workouts on her bad days, which typically accompany cold temperatures or rain.
“She does a great job communicating how she’s feeling,” Jackson said. “She doesn’t really complain or say much. The fact that she’s always willing to lay it on the line every single day, that makes it pretty hard for anybody else to complain.”
Over the summer, she contacted several teachers, asking if she could type notes during class instead of using a pen or pencil. There was hardly any hassle, from teachers or classmates, and her math teacher is even trying to figure out how she can type up math problems and formulas.
While she continues to run well — she even dreams of running at Penn State — she did have to make a major sacrifice: giving up the violin. She had been playing since she was 5.
“That was too painful for me with my hands,” said Cusatis, who still plays the piano from time to time. “I was never going to be a professional violinist or anything, but I’ve been playing so long, it’s something I’ve been used to doing. It was weird once I stopped. But from time to time, if I’m having a good day, I still play a little bit here and there.”
She also loves art class, especially painting. That is her therapy to get through the difficult days, and she is looking forward to painting more during the approaching holiday break.
While the situation can be challenging, especially for a teen, Cusatis is trying to get something positive out of it. She made hair bows and weaved bracelets for teammates, then made a bunch more bracelets and sold them to benefit the National Arthritis Research Foundation. A story about her is posted on the foundation’s website along with a donation link.
She also knows she can help others battling this challenge by showing great things and success are possible even with juvenile arthritis.
“She really doesn’t let anything get in her way,” said Mazza, who was eighth at the PIAA meet. “She has arthritis, but it doesn’t stop her from achieving what she wants to achieve. She is probably one of the most determined people I know, and is very inspiring to me.”
To donate to the Arthritis National Research Foundation, visit www.curearthritis.org/donation/