Just over five years ago, a vicious assault while working undercover as an investigator with the New York State Police changed my life forever. The incident left me with a permanent disability to my right arm and deep wounds that aren't visible to the human eye.
It is extremely gratifying looking back on this past race season and my first year racing with the elite athletes on the ITU paratriathlon series. I'm very blessed to be on this stage representing the United States and wearing the uniform with the stars and stripes of red, white and blue.
Several years ago while I was undergoing physical therapy for my injury, the realization that my arm was losing range of motion and my career was slowly coming to an end caused me to hit rock bottom. I was damaged both physically and mentally.
I still recall several times while driving into work on light duty that I became suddenly enraged with anger, frustration and desperation. I would accelerate my car recklessly, contemplating smashing into a bridge on the interstate. I felt damaged and useless. Psychologically, it destroyed me because I felt like I lost the battle. The bad guy went to jail, and I went home safe to my family. In my mind, everything should have been okay.
The seemingly endless onslaught of guilt would not stop. I convinced myself that I was out of shape, and I should have been able to handle this altercation like I did many times prior. But this was different.
Nightmares of people grabbing me would not stop. I slowly spiraled into a depression, complete with random outbreaks of crying. The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder were slowly consuming me. I stoically tried to hide a lot of my suffering from my family.
Then one day, after my wife convinced me I had to do something, I picked up the phone and asked for help. It was absolutely the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, but fortunately this was the outlet that I needed to start the road to healing. This also led to determining some traumatic issues that were hidden after serving in the military for over 20 years.
A turning point in my healing came with coming to terms with what was happening to me and why it was happening. After a year or so of being in a dark place, I started accepting my disability while trying to manage my mental illness.
One afternoon I was home surfing the internet, researching how I could swim with just one arm. I gave myself a goal that I wanted to compete in something that was going to be the hardest thing imaginable. I wanted to do a triathlon. An image of an amputee holding a bike wearing a USA uniform appeared on my computer. The second I saw that image I was sold. I thought if that young girl can do that sport with one leg then I can do the same thing with one arm.
After reaching out to an adaptive sport program at Penn State, the director pointed me to the Chicago area because she thought they had a paratriathlon organization there. A few calls later and I was talking to Director Keri Serota of Dare2tri Paratriathlon Club. She invited me to her club’s upcoming camp, and I signed up immediately.
That's all it took.
The camp came and went, and I was 100 percent sold on paratriathlon. I soon realized that this was the mechanism that was helping me manage my daily life and gave me the inspiration I needed to get up everyday and set new goals and aspirations. I was slowly emerging from the darkness through discovering this new sport. Even more exciting, unbeknownst to me the co-founder of Dare2tri was the young amputee Melissa Stockwell who I saw on the computer when I was searching around. Now I am very honored to call her a friend.
This new sport, which I was totally consumed in, was my chance at one thing that was eating away at my heart over the last couple years. That was wearing a uniform. Representing the country that I loved. At 18 years old, I joined the military. Now in my 40s, I was retired on disability from the New York State Police, and I already served 21 years in the military. For the first time in a couple of decades, I felt I no longer had an identity. I was no longer wearing an American flag on my uniform, representing what I loved.
So now I had the task of working hard to compete at a level that would earn me the privilege of wearing a uniform representing the red, white and blue. Wearing the letters USA means everything to me. I cherish every second I can represent my country. This new mission I have and this structure in the sport of triathlon has made a huge difference in my life. I really don't know what frame of mind I would be in right now if it wasn't for Dare2tri and USA Paratriathlon.
Some of us are fortunate to have found a spark and a small moment of hope — the hope to push through a devastating time in our lives and to keep fighting to try to find a purpose. When we slowly find direction and get back on course, we can never forget those who still remain lost and off course. If I can offer a spark, no matter how small, to anyone who is suffering, I am giving back the same way I was brought back on course.
There comes a point in time when your life starts to make sense after you suffer from a traumatic event that changes your life. For hours, days, months, years, the agony of devastating change and what will never be again, eats at your soul. By becoming victim to this, your daily life is spent just agonizing over and over again. Your mind is on an endless route of mental and emotional marathons. Through the graces of God and hope, we start to realize that being blessed with a new aspiration to move on and rebuild a new life starts to finally take shape. Slowly these new challenges start to tip the scale to understand that without the devastating heart break this new and exciting change and aspiration would not of been possible without that traumatic incident. It now starts to become very clear and easy to finally accept that what was once the worst thing in your life, has now slowly evolved into the best thing that has ever happened in your life. So I think we can move forward into the future no matter what happens because we've become confident that now we can handle whatever comes our way. These positive steps forward are sometimes blurred, but we confidently move forward because we will never quit nor give up.
~Thomas A Giannettino
1. How did you begin to rebuild and refocus your life?
I feel I am where I am today because I want to be an example to others that no matter how horrible your life can seem that if you dig deep enough you can find a reason to inspire someone by sharing your story. I think we all have a story to share. It's about hope. Period. I have to believe every day is going to better than the next. I have to have hope that I'm going to keep moving forward. I have to have hope that my life will get as close back to normal as it once was.
Not a day goes by that I don't think about my past career as a New York State Trooper. It was in my blood. I wore a uniform since I was 18 years old and served 21 years in the military. I was accustomed to the structure. It was my life. "Then one day you go to bed a hero, and wake up a zero". I lost my identity when I was forced to retire. That uniform, that structure, that American flag on my uniform was taken from me. I truly loved wearing a uniform. So that's what motivates me now. That burning passion to wear a uniform with the letters USA on it. That means everything to me. I want to compete on the biggest stage there is.
Slowly, I set small goals for myself. That's how I get through the days. A lot of people don't know this but, I still have problems dealing with my PTSD. A lot of people know that racing helped me rebuild my life but I still have numerous anxieties associated with my injury. These aren't visible. I have trouble in crowds and people standing close to me that I don't know. I'm usually okay with a social hug and greeting, but that's it. It's very sad and humiliating to admit, but my wife hasn't hugged me in over 5 years. I'm just not ready for that contact. We even have to sleep with a pillow between us at night so she doesn't touch me by accident in the dark. But, I have hope like I said earlier, I hope that someday I will be able to defeat these issues.
2. What lead you to multisport?
The structure of training for a triathlon is exactly what I needed. The daily schedules, the races, the competitive nature of this sport was slowly helping me get through the days and was vital to me rebuilding my life both physically and mentally.
The adrenaline rush of racing is so similar to when I was a police officer. As a law enforcement officer we become accustomed to that fast pace life and the rush of driving fast to a call or answering a call for an officer down. It's extremely tough when that all ends.
Dare2tri has certainly made me realize I can be an incredible athlete. It's given me the opportunity to once again be apart of a team
3. You race all over the world. What kind of experience has that been?
I think the best thing about racing as an elite athlete all over the world is when people cheer you on. They have no idea who I am. But I symbolize America to them. They yell and chant "Go USA" because they see my uniform and who I represent. There is such an incredible feeling when this happens. This truly motivates me to keep pushing harder.
4. What is it like competing the elite level?
Competing at the elite level was my goal 3 years ago when I first was introduced to Dare2tri. The athletes there inspired me to push hard and that if I worked hard enough I could also be at their level of athleticism. Being an elite right now is very rewarding. I'm usually the oldest competitor. It's funny that some of my competition that I line up against are more than half my age. Some of these kids are 19 and 20. I'm 48 years old but I feel it's my passion and love for what I'm doing that drives me to keep working and keep getting faster. I may not be the fastest or the most athletic but my heart and mind are unstoppable. I realized that there are two things that know one can’t take from me, that's my attitude and my effort. I control this.
5. Do you have a goal that you have not achieved yet? If so, what goal is that?
I would love to be able to reach the most honorable of all athletic achievements and represent my country at the Paralympics. Having only been in elite athletics for just a year and a half I'm going to say my most desirable goal would hopefully be to remain healthy, to be able to compete, and hopefully work towards my Paralympic dream 4 years from now.
6. You wrote a really great piece on what motivates you - would you like to share?
Over the last four years a majority of my motivation has come from people who have inspired me to find a purpose to rebuild and refocus my life. Then out of nowhere, I recently received a phone call from a friend who I’ve met just once. This friend began to share with me how inspired he has become and how energized he feels when he often scrolls through social media and views images of me and other athletes involved in athletics. This particular friend I met through being an advocate for dealing with Post Traumatic Stress and the prevention of suicide affecting our veterans and first responders. My friend further added how some days he needs to find strength to even get out of bed. During these personal struggles he went on to say that he often looks at my energy and everything that I’m doing to find his strength to keep moving forward. He personally knows my struggles and what I’ve been through and basically finds his inspiration through me.
This is the first time that anyone has ever called me to share how much impact I’ve had on their life. I have to say that it truly feels amazing. As an ambassador and elite athlete with Dare2tri, I’m truly honored to be apart of this amazing organization and personal journey. I think that every athlete involved with Dare2tri needs to know that we not only inspire others to be active in sports but we leave an impact on others who may never experience sport but find inspiration in our activities. When we say “one inspires many” that “many” may never run a 5K or cross the finish line of a triathlon, but they may just find the hope and strength to get up and move forward in life.