TP TALKS TO... Steve Serio

by Travelling Peach

Growing up with a disability is all I know. However I didn’t know anything about adaptive sports until I was 16 years old; until then I’d played able-bodied sports. My parents were determined to give me a ‘normal’ lifestyle and adaptive sports were not part of that so I played with my able-bodied friends and did the best I could. We played baseball standing up, we played football and they would just tailor the rules to accommodate me. Then aged 15/16, they started to progress in their athletics and the school board told me I wasn’t allowed to play with them. That was a difficult time. It was the first time when someone who didn’t know me personally, who didn’t understand my abilities told me I couldn’t do anything in sports. It was the first time I ever felt disabled.

My friends weren’t having any of it. One appointed me Manager of the track team and the football team. I was nice but tough too; anyway they were my friends so I sucked it up and became that inspirational late leader ‘Look guys, if I can’t be out there with you, go do it for me.’ Being there triggered off this whole sequence of events. It was the first time I saw a wheelchair racer. Watching him racing around the track, he was so fast. Not competing with his school team, just racing, having fun… I thought ‘Oh my God, this is incredible.’ We became friends and he said ‘Listen, racing takes a lot of commitment, a lot of hard work and it’s very expensive. Have you ever tried basketball?’ There was a team that trained 10 minutes from where I lived. How didn’t I know about it? The following Monday I attended practice and was naturally good at it. I’ve never left the gym since.

‘I played sports growing up but not basketball. It was difficult to tailor the rules to accommodate me, but from the moment I tried it, I was in love. I was instantaneous. This was where I belonged.'

I started playing basketball later than most people do, but things moved really quickly. Initially in high school the goal was to get a scholarship to college. I attended the University of Illinois, majoring in Exercise Science. It wasn’t necessarily about high performance, rather working with special populations. I.e. training clients with diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease etc. Very interesting. Then immediately after I graduated, I began playing for Team USA. A very quick transition – I went straight from playing basketball for fun to it becoming my number one priority.


‘Wheelchair basketball is a lot faster paced, athletic in movement, dangerous and exciting than people realise. You get knocked all over the place and no one seems to complain. (But then you look at footballers... One tap and they fall over and cry. You guys fall over and get on with it.)’  Yes, it’s one of those sports that people misconceive. If they’ve never experienced it, they think it’s a slow game, maybe lacking physicality or with different rules, lower hoops etc. but it’s not like that at all. As soon as they see how skilled and athletic, fast and physical the game is, they fall in love with it. It is a very intense sport; not much flapping goes on. Although I think that’s down to the people, we’ve created this awesome culture of pushing each other to the limits.

‘Your upperbody strength seems to be a lot stronger than that of mainstream basketball players. You really use it as your driving force.’ Most able-bodied basketball training focuses on the lower extremity muscles, running, jumping, cutting; whereas we need to be skilled in our upper body as well as strong and powerful (for obvious reasons) so it presents certain challenges that they don’t experience.

The rules are the same though. The only difference is that we’re allowed to double dribble (stop out, dribble and start again). The 3-point line, foul situation and everything else are exactly the same. That said, when you play at the highest level, everybody constantly dribbles. It’s just an easier way to control the ball and move your chair simultaneously so that rule rarely counts.

Over the last 10 years, high performance has really inspired me. It’s driven me to push myself to accomplish the ultimate goals, to see that everything is possible. I wake up everyday and think how I can improve myself on- and off- the court. Winning the Paralympic gold medal (Rio 2016) and SVP (2017) were such humbling experiences, not just for me but they showed that our sport is becoming more recognized by the mainstream media. I love being an ambassador for that and everything it stands for. Wheelchair basketball has given me everything I have. My way to give back is to be a resource for people who want to fill that void in their life – to regain power, confidence, freedom, community and fun – especially people with disabilities.

I’ve been disabled since I was 11 months old, but for years I never knew anything about adaptive sports. After discovering wheelchair basketball, there was no real moment when I thought my career would go a different way, but I had no idea winning at Rio would happen. You hope, but it’s impossible to prepare for something like that. When you’re training in your driveway and you’re counting down 3-2-1 for the last shot, that’s one thing, but when you win – become Olympic Champion – with an amazing group of guys, your team, and you’ve accomplished the ultimate goal, there’s no feeling like it.

Anytime we train at a different gym or people see us shooting in a wheelchair for the first time, they can’t take their eyes off what we’re able to do. It’s funny because we constantly get confused with Murderball players. Murderball was a really powerful documentary in the US and anytime they see us play or we’re at an airport pushing our wheelchairs, we get stopped and asked about it. On the one hand, it’s great that they saw the documentary and that they’re aware of adaptive sports but, on the other hand, it’s not what we’re all about.

The National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) is a recreational league so a lot of what we’re about is inclusion and less about high performance. We try to attract as many people as possible, especially kids with disabilities. As you progress to college athletics and international competitions, mental health is a hugely important and the NWBA has done a great job to acknowledge that and make support resources accessible. We aren’t shy about it. If someone has problems (anxiety or at home), there are plenty of people to support you. The best thing about the NWBA – and yes it’s cliché  – is that we’re a big family. It’s one of those very niche sports where we really look out for each other. That said it definitely helps that there isn’t the high performance pressure that the NBA has. A $100million contract may seem like the dream, but the reality is that it brings a lot of pressure, a lot of mental instabilities. Even at the top of your game you’re constantly under pressure to compete with athletes trying to take your spot. To survive, strong support networks are vital. Most of the time, people struggle with things outside of basketball; basketball is the outlet, a welcome distraction.

Learn from your mistakes. A lot of people look at me individually and see the gold medal and the SVP, thinking that I’ve been this super successful athlete from the beginning. The reality: I’ve lost more than I’ve won, but my ability to bounce back and learn from those losses, to use them to improve myself on- and off- the court is what’s kept me here for this long. It’s easy to get discouraged, especially if you have a disability, when things don’t go your way, but a lot of times character is revealed during those hard moments. Don’t get discouraged. All of your dreams are 100% attainable.

Play with people who are better than you – even if that means losing constantly. Then when you start winning, pick another person/team who’s better than you. It’s easy to fall into your comfort zone, to think that you’re progressing if you’re constantly beating the same team / person. But you’re not. You learn more when you lose than when you win.

They’re in our region so we compete against them almost every single year with Team USA. Their programme has been incredibly successful over the last decade. I wouldn’t say it’s rivalry (we’re good friends off the court), but we don’t see each other every year but we’re all training hard behind the scenes so when we meet we bring the best out of each other. Patrick Anderson– the best player in the world for the last decade – is on their team. We both play for the NY Rolling Knicks so it’s been a strange transition to go from competing against each other to playing as teammates.

‘My favourite part about having a disability is that I have the ability to change the world around me every single day.'

'Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in square holes… the ones who see things differently – they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… They push the human race forward, and while some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do.’ Steve Jobs.

It’s so poignant and great way to look at adaptive sports. When you grow up with a disability your entire life is about what you can’t do. We’re constantly reminded every single day that we have a disability but through adaptive sports, we have the ability to change the misconceptions about what can and should be possible.

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