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Susan Harmeling first woman to receive lifetime honor at Sneaker Soiree in Tampa

TAMPA — For the last quarter-century, she has combined passion and meticulousness to keep the Gasparilla Distance Classic humming and evolving. Indefatigable and detailed, Susan Harmeling braces for every race-weekend contingency.

But the organizers of the seventh annual Sneaker Soiree got something past her Thursday night. When a short video tribute to Harmeling commenced, you could've knocked over the matriarch of the area's premier road race with a mild Bayshore Boulevard headwind.

Lured to the Tampa Bay Sports Commission-hosted gala under the premise that she was going to honor a runner, Harmeling also was presented with the Lee Roy Selmon Lifetime Achievement Award.

"Total shock," said Harmeling, who earlier had recognized 13-year-old racing phenom (and reigning Gasparilla women's 5 kilometer and 8K champ) Ellie Pleune.

The Gasparilla Distance Classic Association executive director since 1992, Harmeling, 61, is the first woman to win the award, given to a person who demonstrates a lifetime of "incredible support" for the bay area sports community.

Previous winners include Dick Vitale, Derrick Brooks and Selmon posthumously.

"The only thing I can say is, how fortunate are we — everybody in this room — to be able to touch lives through sports," Harmeling told the audience at TPepin's Hospitality Centre.

"What a gift it is. I've been doing this for 25 years, and I just don't think there's anything better than being able to reach out and touch folks, to create an environment where we touch lives where memories are made. And at the same time, we raise money for youth charitable organizations in our community."

Since the race's birth in 1978, it has generated close to $5 million for charities.

A USF graduate, Harmeling left her position as Tampa Convention Center event coordinator in 1992 for her current gig. Among those lauding her work on the video was Wayne Papy, former deputy director of the City of Tampa Parks and Recreation Department. "She has a knack for the ability to make people like her," Papy said.

The event had emotion, parodies and inspiration.

A handful of area superfans were honored, and several Sports Community Hero awards were presented.

Among the recipients: childhood brain-cancer survivor and Rowdies ambassador Cole Eicher and soon-to-be sixth-graders Max Basurto and Parker Braswell, who joined forces while at Roosevelt Elementary to collect and distribute sports equipment for less-privileged kids through the Replay Tampa Bay sporting-goods drive.

WDAE-AM 620 sports-talk radio personality Steve Duemig, who returned to the air in May after being diagnosed with a brain tumor, was presented the Tom McEwen Community Advocate Award. Bradenton Inspiration Academy's Kevin Ewing, who was born without a right hand and will pitch next season at Johnson (Tenn.) University, was presented the Freddie Solomon Moral Courage Award.

Award recipients

Lee Roy Selmon Lifetime Achievement Award: Susan Harmeling, executive director, Gasparilla Distance Classic Association

• Tom McEwen Community Advocate Award: Steve Duemig WDAE-AM 620 sports-talk radio personality

• Freddie Solomon Moral Courage Award: Kevin Ewing, Bradenton Inspiration Academy pitcher who was born without a right hand

• Sports Community Heroes: Cole Eicher, Rowdies fan and childhood brain-cancer survivor; Sam Bridgman, who has a rare degenerative neuromuscular disorder, recently earned a master's degree at USF and works for the Lightning; Max Basurto and Parker Braswell, former Roosevelt Elementary students who collected dozens of pieces of sports equipment for underprivileged kids

• Under Armour "I Will" Award: Ellie Pleune, winner of the Gasparilla Distance Classic 5K and 8K women's races at age 13

• Tampa Bay Rowdies Fan of the Year: Michael Perkins

• USF Fan of the Year: Bill Wiggins

• Tampa Bay Rays Fan of the Year: George Stone

• Tampa Bay Lightning Fans of the Year: Eric and Erin Masciulli

• Tampa Bay Buccaneers Fan of the Year: Travis Zink

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.