“I remember like maybe 2012, it was a Father’s Day,” says Tom Giannettino, who uniquely made his way to coaching triathlon at Cornell University, having served in the Air Force and as a 9/11 first-responder before he was seriously injured as a New York State Police detective. “I couldn’t go out and play catch with my kid. I always remember stuff like that because I couldn’t throw the ball. Those things always stick in my mind and kind of haunt me.”
Giannettino says he was working undercover for the NYSP when a man he was arresting attacked him, knocking his jaw out of place and injuring his shoulder. For his arm’s range of motion, that was the beginning of the end. “They had to rebuild my shoulder, five screws, anchors, all that stuff, which is a lot for a shoulder,” Giannettino says. “Then I lost range of motion in my shoulder. Within three months, I couldn’t even move it.”
That led to a medical retirement from the NYSP. During that difficult time, Giannettino says injuries he had suffered during his military service in Operation Desert Storm and amid responding to the September 11 attack at Ground Zero resurfaced.
“Unfortunately, this new injury, the fact that I had to be medically retired, and I had already retired from the military, I was completely broken both mentally and physically,” he says. “I lost my identity. I lost my confidence. I was probably in the worst place in my life.”
That’s when, on a serendipitous Google search, he found his way to an image of two-time Paralympic triathlete and former Army officer Melissa Stockwell. She was pictured hoisting a bike above her head for Team USA. Stockwell is also co-founder of Dare2Tri, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization created to serve people with disabilities through the sport of triathlon. Seeing Stockwell’s image was another beginning.
“When I look at that picture, the first thing that hit me was that she had a prosthetic leg, which meant she really only had one leg,” Giannettino says. “She could only swim with one leg. It’s like the light went on: If she can swim with just one leg, then why can’t I swim with just one arm?”
Triathlon as a tool
“Part of the reason we founded the organization within triathlon is that triathlon is inclusive by nature,” says Keri Serota, also a co-founder of Dare2Tri. “In any given race, you can have a first-timer out there, you can have a pro, you can have a master’s-age athlete all out there competing at the same time on the same course battling the same conditions. That’s why we found triathlon to be sort of the right mechanism for — what we say — positively changing lives.”
Dare2Tri was founded in 2011 to enhance the lives of people with physical disabilities by building confidence, community and wellness through swimming, biking and running. The organization empowers athletes – from beginner to elite – to be active, engage with the community, and set and reach goals.
Ten years ago, Serota, Stockwell and a third person, Dan Tun, started Dare2Tri after the three friends of different abilities had participated in 5Ks, marathons and triathlons together.
“The three of us would do races together and we thought, ‘How do we get more people with disabilities active in their own community?’ ” Serota says. “There’s a large adaptive sports presence in terms of wheelchair basketball, or sled hockey, but those are sports where you need nine other people in wheelchairs to play. Melissa being an amputee, and me being able-bodied, we’d go out and do a 5K race anywhere we wanted, or a triathlon, and it was accessible and inclusive. We thought, ‘We’ve got to get more people doing this.’ ”
A plan for everyone
Working through Dare2Tri events, Giannettino trained until he was in the best shape of his life, disabled or not, he says.
“I went, like, zero to a hundred in a couple years. And I just really turned my life around because of that camp, and what I learned, and the confidence I got,” he says. “I’ll tell you what, I’m not one to toot my own horn, but at 47 years old, I was world-ranked in the 1,500 track and field and world-ranked in paratriathlon. I was a Paralympian. I’ve still got the letters.”
Dare2Tri’s aim is to be the boost to help support and inspire more stories like Giannettino’s journey to Paralympic hopeful.
“We have always been and continue to serve kids, adults and injured veterans or service members who have physical disabilities,” Serota says. “So spinal cord injuries, or amputations, or cerebral palsy, spina bifida, whether they were born with their disability or whether they acquired it through cancer or an automobile accident or serving in the military. Our goal is to get them active and provide all of the opportunities.”
That includes access to adaptive equipment such as handcycles, racing wheelchairs and tandem bikes, which can be cost-prohibitive for the average person. “A lot of people don’t have access to and aren’t going to invest in a $5,000 hand bike until they know they like the sport,” she says. “I would say access to adaptable equipment and community are certainly at the crux of what we do and who we are. In terms of bringing like-minded people together, people with all kinds of disabilities who can find a community that supports them and encourages them and pushes them.”
One way that leaders in athletics can support everyone is to be proactive and create a plan that calls for everyone, Serota says. “Don’t wait for an athlete with a disability to show up at your program or your race or your event and request the accommodation,” she says. “Try, in your planning, to think about how you can meet the needs of athletes with disabilities. Because people, they say, ‘Well I don’t have any athletes with disabilities in my program.’ But that’s not obviously always accurate.”
A future of life-changing inspiration
After the pandemic prompted a year of virtual giving in 2020, Dare2Tri was able to bring its annual fundraiser back to life in October, raising more than $200,000 to provide programs, resources, equipment, scholarship funding and more for athletes with physical disabilities. The successful event also honored Dare2tri Elite team members, including: Hailey Danz, a 2020 U.S. Paralympic silver medalist in triathlon; Grace Norman, a 2020 U.S. Paralympic silver medalist in triathlon; Kevin McDowell, a 2020 U.S. Olympic silver medalist in triathlon mixed relay; and Ahalya Lettenberger, a 2020 U.S. Paralympic silver medalist in swimming.
“I think it really impacts all aspects of their lives,” Serota says. “It’s great if we can get somebody to cross the finish line of a triathlon, because we often say the finish line’s just the beginning. We know that it’s going to open so many other doors. Whether they never do another triathlon or they go on and compete at a national championship, the impact of doing something that they previously didn’t think that they could do, that’s life-changing.”
Giannettino has been coaching club triathletes at Cornell for three years, a job he calls the “silver lining” of his story that he never would have found if he hadn’t been disabled.
“I learned that whether I’m an adaptive athlete or an able-bodied athlete, it doesn’t matter. I can be somebody again.”