Like the sport he loves, Tom Giannettino's last few years have come in three phases: Loss, recovery and resurgence.
The Auburn native is a retired U.S. Air Force serviceman and former member of the New York State Police. He started his state police career as a field trooper and ended it as a criminal investigator.
Now he’s 46 and lives in Throop. His retirement was not by choice. Law enforcement was a dream cut short more than four years ago by an injury that turned into a disability.
It was a tear in his shoulder that left deep scars on more than just his flesh.
Reeling and on the brink, Giannettino sought structure for his life after years of discipline through public safety agencies. He's found it through physical fitness — paralympic sports, in particular.
Now, Giannettino is an accomplished paratriathlete who has been selected to represent the United States on an international stage. He will race in South Africa on March 1 with a meet in Australia two weeks later.
The races are part of a points circuit for participating parathletes, and enough points could garner Olympic consideration for the 2016 paralympic games in Rio de Janiero.
Transitioning from a law enforcement officer into a disabled athlete came down to Giannettino coming to grips with his new self. To accept that one of his limbs will not work properly for the foreseeable future.
To accept that he is not physically fit to serve and protect.
Hold your arm outstretched in front of you. That's Giannettino's range of motion with his right arm in that particular direction.
It's worse if he tries to stretch his arm out from his side away from his body, like a wing. His shoulder only allows him to lift to an angle of roughly less than 45 degrees between his arm and body.
This restriction has forced Giannettino to get crafty in his career as an adaptive sportsman, particularly when he goes to swim.
The disability stems from an incident in 2011 when Giannettino was a state trooper. He joined the New York State Police in 1999 in the midst of a 21-year career with the Air Force and Air National Guard. He's experienced deployments to support Desert Storm and 9/11 operations.
"I had always had a love and passion for law enforcement," he said.
Giannettino was promoted to investigator in 2007 to cover the gaming detail. Without disclosing many details, Giannettino was patrolling a local casino in November 2010 when he encountered a particularly rowdy individual.
He said he was assaulted by the subject with a punch to the face that damaged his jaw. It was during the course of apprehension, however, that Giannettino felt something tear in his right arm.
"I did some significant damage to the labrum tendon," he said, describing the piece of cartilage that surrounds the humerus slotted within the shoulder joint.
The following period was supposed to be rehabilitative. Giannettino had several procedures done on his shoulder over the next few months, and he was left to look forward to getting back to work.
Except that return wouldn't happen — at least, nothing beyond a desk position where he was typically tasked with paperwork.
The initial surgery, and those that followed, would not rejuvenate his range of motion. A doctor told him in March 2012, "You better look for another line of work," he said. He eventually heeded that advice and retired that August.
It was devastating for Giannettino, a man who had only known the rigidity and structure of a public safety position since enlisting into the military when he was 18.
"It was like getting hit in the head with a brick," he recalled, emotional. "It’s one of those things that haunt you."
Furthermore, Giannettino possesses a physical disability further compounded by a myriad of mental neuroses.
Knowing he was not returning to work, Giannettino said depression had sometimes spurred impulsive feelings and actions when he was by himself, such as driving 100 mph down a highway with little regard for his own personal safety.
Additionally, the Auburn native was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The symptoms, he said, have changed his life. He feels hyper-vigilant at times. He can't watch violent movies. He's uncomfortable in crowded, loud situations.
He does not like people touching him. Hugs with his family have never been the same.
It is tough for everyone involved, Giannettino said. Even tougher, he added, had been finding help to cope with these issues, particularly through a worker's compensation program.
"It's always hands-on as a cop at a casino. We've gotten bumps and bruises," Giannettino said of the diagnosis. "But I think it was just the fact that that happened, that caused the end of my career."
It was not a diagnosis his mother, Rose Marie, could have saw coming. The common perception, she said, is that PTSD is reserved for those coming back from war, not so much a first responder.
It took years for Giannettino to open up to his family about his situation, she said. Giannettino put on a brave face at times, but his mother saw through it.
"It was very heartbreaking as a mother to see him so young and have to give up his job," she said.
Grounded in the summer of 2013, Giannettino found himself jogging more often as an outlet.
Jogging gave him something he felt he did not have for around a year: Control. He could go as fast, or as slow, as he wanted, and the activity was not hurting his arm.
Giannettino aims turned competitive when he took part in several local road races. The goal was to get faster, stronger and maybe even win a few of those races, many against others without his disability. He did.
"I really felt that being involved in physical fitness was actually making me feel better," Giannettino said.
His pursuits toward physical fitness introduced him to paralympian Melissa Stockwell – a picture of her, initially. He saw her posed in her Team USA uniform holding a bicycle aloft while supported by a prosthetic left leg.
Stockwell is the first female soldier to lose a limb in the Iraq War. She adapted to her injury by becoming an accomplished paratriathlete with several gold medals to her name.
Her story inspired Giannettino down his own path.
"I thought, 'Wow,'" he said. "'If she can do this, then why can't I get in the water and swim?'"
Triathlon, he said, gave him some new goals to look forward to every day. He described a triathlon as three distinct disciplines – cycling, running and swimming. And with each one, Giannettino had to relearn the nuances. To adapt.
When Giannettino runs, his arm is in a sling. When he bikes, he places his elbow onto an adjustable platform for support. When he swims, one arm performs the traditional paddling while the other, he describes, just "pushes water" behind him.
He has worked to hone these methods at a number of different organizations and camps. First was the Dare2tri Paratriathlon Club out of Chicago where Giannettino took part in the agency's Wisconsin camp in June 2013.
He eventually met Stockwell through the program and said they have become friends. Competing alongside his fellow campers, some of them world-class athletes, Giannettino said his purpose was clear.
"Being in the realm of those other athletes, I found that this is who I am right now and this is what I want to do," he said.
His travels took him to Colorado for a development camp a couple of years ago. There he met his coach Cami Stock, a certified U.S. Olympic coach who has worked with other wounded warriors in the past.
As a former Air Force officer, Stock said she and Giannettino found common ground almost immediately. It was over time when Stock noticed the Auburn native's work ethic and drive to inspire others.
The key to adaptive sports, she said, is to find a method that personally works best for the athlete. Stock noted a particular challenge in finding Giannettino's swim stroke, but they got it.
Giannettino was chosen for the triathlon in South Africa based on his past success. Part of that was his qualification for the paratriathlon national championships in 2014.
And to see his career come to "full circle," Stock said — from one American uniform to another — has been awesome.
"Once he found his way, there's really been no stopping him," she said. "He's been developing ever since."
On Sunday, Giannettino will start with an 850-meter swim in the Indian Ocean off the Orient Beach Complex in Buffalo City.
The swim portion is followed by a bike course with two 10-kilometer laps, then a 5-kilometer run (or about three miles) to close the race.
To see her son move through his disability toward something productive has been quite a sight for Rose Marie.
"This is probably the most wonderful thing that he's ever done," she said. "I'm so happy that he's finally found something that he can be happy with because, I'll tell you, that job meant everything to him."
He still deals with the mental health issues, though he’s dealing with them. He’s involved with the Code 9: Officer Needs Assistance organization, which is designed to spread awareness of PTSD with first responders.
Involvement in these groups, Giannettino said, helps him spread awareness of the mental health struggles that first responders have been diagnosed with, and to help those similar in refocusing their energies toward something more productive.
As well, these organizations showed him that he is not alone. And he wasn’t alone in his nomination for the March 1 race in South Africa where he will be joined by two other para-athletes in East London.
"This sport saved my life," Giannettino said. "This sport kept me focused, on track. This helped me redirect my energy toward something positive and hopefully inspire other people to work through an injury and post-traumatic stress.
"Dare2tri's motto is, 'One Inspires Many,'" he recalled. "And that's something I absolutely believe in."