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Gasparilla race director Susan Harmeling celebrating a miracle this Mother’s Day

A day after the 2021 race, a freak accident nearly killed Harmeling’s 42-year-old son.
Longtime Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic executive director Susan Harmeling and son Jeff share a powerful bond that grew even stronger when Jeff suffered a near-fatal accident last May. Courtesy of Susan Harmeling
Longtime Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic executive director Susan Harmeling and son Jeff share a powerful bond that grew even stronger when Jeff suffered a near-fatal accident last May. Courtesy of Susan Harmeling [ Courtesy of Susan Harmeling ]
Published May 5|Updated May 7

TAMPA — In those fleeting few hours during a race weekend when she actually puts her head to a pillow, Susan Harmeling is rousted by irony.

The longtime executive director of the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic has nightmares about sleeping.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve dreamed in 30 years that I’ve overslept,” Harmeling said. “The two dreams are that I overslept, and the second one is, I’m at the finish line without the finish tape. So I have two finish tapes: Somebody at the finish line has one and I have one in the (lead) car with me.”

At least one of those fears would seem rational if Harmeling actually slept. Yet when her nationally heralded event descends on Bayshore Boulevard each February, every hour is a waking one for the 66-year-old Tallahassee native. In a sport that demands pacing oneself, Harmeling operates at a breakneck tempo the entire weekend.

From marking the course to mobilizing volunteers to catering to special guests, Harmeling is omnipresent.

“She’s a really good friend, and a very kind person, and very organized person,” said 76-year-old Lakeland resident Rob Mason, one of a handful of individuals who has competed in all 45 Gasparilla Distance Classics. “I’ve done my share of race directing, but she’s light years beyond me.”

A self-described “control freak,” Harmeling was rendered helpless as her adult son — her only child — nearly lost his life a year ago.

In the immediate wake of Mother’s Day, Harmeling experienced every mother’s nightmare.

“The bottom line is, you just never know,” she said. “Your life changes just like that.”

Her personal marathon

Jeff Harmeling, son of Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic executive director Susan Harmeling, annually drove the media truck during race weekend until a freak accident in a 2021 softball game nearly killed him.
Jeff Harmeling, son of Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic executive director Susan Harmeling, annually drove the media truck during race weekend until a freak accident in a 2021 softball game nearly killed him. [ Courtesy of Susan Harmeling ]

The 2021 version of Gasparilla may have been the most trying of Harmeling’s three-decade tenure. The pandemic initially caused its postponement before organizers decided to stage a virtual edition of the race to a limited number of runners the second weekend of May.

For six hours each on May 8 and 9, the race’s traditional Bayshore course was open to registered participants. A designated start/finish area was erected in the shadow of Tampa General Hospital, but no official timekeeper was present.

The normal army of volunteers mobilized for the weekend was reduced to around 15. Even the goody bags were virtual. The modifications enraged some who were hoping for a conventional race weekend.

“People are mean,” said Harmeling, one of only two full-time Gasparilla Distance Classic Association employees. “And social media gives them permission to be mean. It was hurtful. We were doing the best that we could.”

For years, Jeff Harmeling — a 42-year-old personal trainer and married dad of a toddler — had driven the media truck for his mom during race weekend, hauling a handful of reporters along the course, slightly ahead of the lead runners. Because the 2021 race was virtual, the Tallahassee resident didn’t attend it, but made sure to call his mom that Sunday.

It was, after all, Mother’s Day, and their bond is powerful. Harmeling and Jeff’s father had divorced when he was a grade-schooler.

“From high school athletics, she’s what I remember,” said Jeff, who played baseball at the University of Tampa. “She was at every game.”

The evening of May 10, while en route to a recreational-league softball game, Jeff called her again.

“People were mean about COVID and he knew that I had a hard time,” Harmeling said. “So he called me on the way to that softball game, just to check on me and tell me he loved me.”

Jeff Harmeling, 42-year-old son of Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic executive director Susan Harmeling, suffered seven brain bleeds as a result of a collision during a softball game in Tallahassee in May 2021.
Jeff Harmeling, 42-year-old son of Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic executive director Susan Harmeling, suffered seven brain bleeds as a result of a collision during a softball game in Tallahassee in May 2021. [ Courtesy of Susan Harmeling ]

Jeff remembers nothing about what transpired immediately thereafter. He has been told that he was playing leftfield when he began charging a shallow fly ball hit between himself and the shortstop. As he slid to attempt the catch, his head and torso remained upright as he collided with the shortstop.

It rendered Jeff unconscious, though his body twitched. An ambulance was summoned as a teammate removed the wad of tobacco from Jeff’s mouth so he wouldn’t choke. Someone contacted his wife, Colleen. When she arrived at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, he was intubated and headed to intensive care.

“You have seven minutes, I think, with a (traumatic brain injury), to get to the hospital to be assessed and see what’s going on,” Harmeling said. “They left so quickly, they didn’t get his name. So when he got to the hospital, he was a John Doe. That was why Colleen couldn’t find him.”

An associate professor of marketing at FSU, Colleen says her husband ultimately experienced seven brain bleeds, ranging from a right-frontal contusion to a hemorrhage in the corpus callosum (the “nerve highway” between the two lobes). He initially was comatose, requiring a breathing tube.

Harmeling arrived the morning after the accident. When she spoke, her son struggled against the restraints fastened to his bed.

“And his little eyes opened just enough for me to see the green,” she said. “I don’t know if he saw me.”

Three days later, Harmeling again was at her son’s bedside when a nurse entered and pinched his arm, prompting him to open his eyes again. When the nurse asked if he knew his name, he mumbled, “Jeff.”

Harmeling’s eyes glisten and her voice breaks when recalling what happened next.

“And (the nurse) said, ‘Do you know where you are?’ And he said, ‘Hospital,’” Harmeling recalled. “So then he said, ‘Do you know who’s on your right?’ And he kind of struggled, and he didn’t know right from left, so I said, ‘Buddy, I’m over here.’ And he turned and said, ‘Mom.’”

Outrunning the odds

From there, Jeff’s recovery vacillated between steady and surreal. Before the accident, Jeff had shared a song with his mom — Beautiful Crazy by Luke Combs — that Harmeling had downloaded to her phone. When she played it for him, he mouthed every word.

“It was amazing that he had that long-term recollection,” she said.

After nearly two weeks in the hospital, Jeff was transferred to Brooks Rehabilitation in Jacksonville, where he spent the next seven weeks in in-patient care re-learning virtually every rudimentary function while trying to re-gain weight. When not by her husband’s side, Colleen stayed at Helen’s House, which offers lodging to patients and their caregivers.

Colleen took advantage of the facility’s sprawling commercial kitchen to meet her husband’s specific nutritional needs. An autoimmune condition detected a dozen years before made processed foods and sugar off-limits to him.

Equipped with a blender and juicer, Colleen spent every morning preparing vegetables and meats that she could blend with raw egg yolks — a cerebral super food.

Living roughly 20 minutes away were Jeff’s father John, and his wife Kay, who helped with laundry, assembled volunteers from their church to furnish food, and allowed the couple to live with them when Jeff transitioned to outpatient care.

Gradually Jeff’s speech, strength and mobility progressed. When his coordination and cognitive skills permitted, his dad took him to an empty parking lot and taught him how to drive again. Back in Tallahassee, Harmeling and Colleen’s mother — “Gammy” and “Nana,” respectively — took turns caring for their grandson Zachary, now 4. So did Harmeling’s sister, Betty, who lived nearby.

Harmeling lost count of the miles she put on her Chevrolet Traverse during her triangular summer odyssey from Tampa to Tallahassee to Jacksonville and back. During those isolated hours on the interstate, she pondered if her race — and far more importantly, her son — would return to a semblance of normalcy.

“I’ve been through so many life changes with Gasparilla, and they’ve just been so awesome and allowed me to be where I needed to be,” said Harmeling, a USF alumnus who had served as events and marketing coordinator for the Tampa Convention Center in a previous life.

“We had tons of stuff to do, and I just basically walked away and said (to the staff), ‘It’s yours.’ Everybody rallied around us and has been very supportive. I was up there for the entire summer for the most part.”

Last October, Jeff walked out of the rehab facility on his own. Today, he talks clearly — albeit slower and with a mild slur — and is back to driving and training clients. After dropping to 165 pounds, he is back to 183. Zachary (affectionately called “Big Z” by everyone), who initially was a little frightened of his dad when he could barely speak or move, now kisses him routinely.

“I do everything that I normally did,” said Jeff, who turns 43 this month. “I had this great brain before, that I could remember things and I didn’t have to write them down. Now I have to write things down. Naturally, the only difference, at the beginning I thought that my talking really threw people off. But apparently it doesn’t. I kept 12 of 14 clients.”

Similarly, the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic is making a robust recovery. Despite a capped registration, some COVID-19 protocols and a few detractors put off by them, the 2022 event — staged on a warm, windless late-February weekend — drew 14,593 registrants.

Jeff has a long way to go, but there is a tangible finish line in sight. His goal is to drive the media pickup at the 2023 Gasparilla, where participation is expected to again hover around 25,000.

If that dream comes to fruition, don’t dare wake Harmeling up.

“We’re just grateful, honestly, that he’s alive.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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