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Long Islanders chase gold at the Paralympic Games

Tysheem Griffin, a recent Amityville High School

Tysheem Griffin, a recent Amityville High School graduate, will compete in track and field at the Paralympic Summer Games in Rio. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The second wave of athletes in pursuit of gold, silver and bronze is descending on Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the 15th Paralympic Summer Games. TeamUSA’s 289-member roster will compete in 20 sports and represents the District of Columbia and 43 states, including New York. The Empire State’s contingent includes six Long Islanders in pursuit of the thrill of victory:

  • Michael Brannigan, track and field
  • Tysheem Griffin, track and field
  • Billy Lister, cycling
  • Steve Serio, wheelchair basketball
  • Jaclyn Smith, rowing
  • Lora Webster, sitting volleyball

The Games will be held through Sept. 18. To compete, Paralympians must train at least five days a week with a coach or training group, enter six to eight competitions per season and qualify at national championships or other sanctioned competitions.

Eligibility includes several disability categories, such as physical, visual and intellectual impairment, and a classification of disabilities based on an athlete’s functional abilities.

Paralympic veterans Serio, of Westbury, and Webster, of Point Lookout, will try to add to the bronze and silver medals they won in Athens, Beijing or London. Serio began that quest Sept. 8 when his team — which won bronze in London in 2012 — played Brazil. For Serio, who plays guard, good things come to those who show up.

“The best thing besides winning is working hard and accomplishing your dreams with your teammates and friends,” he said. A victory will be icing on Serio’s birthday cake — he turns 29 that day.

The Paralympics began in 1952 as the International Stoke Mandeville Games. The competition owes its existence to the efforts of Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, a British physician who founded the National Spinal Injuries Center at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, England. Guttmann was a proponent of sports therapy, believing sports could improve the quality of life of those injured in accidents or wounded in battle.

The competition has evolved over the decades to its current version. For starters, not until 1960 did the Stoke Mandeville Games and the Olympics happen for the first time in the same city — Rome, Italy. Nearly three decades would pass before they intersected again, establishing yet more precedents: In 1988, the Paralympics became the official term of the Games, and its athletes competed in the same city — Seoul, South Korea — and in the same venues as the Olympic Games.

According to a history of the competition, the term Paralympics combines “parallel” and “Olympic” to “illustrate how the two movements exist side by side.”

TeamUSA’s 2016 Paralympians represent the nation’s largest-ever delegation. According to the Colorado Springs-based U.S. Olympic Committee and the National Paralympic Committee, the United States qualified all eight of its sports teams to compete in Rio for the first time since 2004, when the Paralympics were held in Athens. There are 76 athletes competing in track and field, TeamUSA’s largest sport delegation.

Jaclyn Smith, who grew up in Williston Park and is a first-time Paralympian, will try to glide to a spot on the podium with her four-person rowing crew, which includes Dorian Weber, who was born in Manhasset and grew up in Oxford, England. She already knows what she’ll do if she wins.

“I cannot wait to thank them [family, friends and neighbors, teachers, classmates, guidance counselor and coaches from St. Aidan’s, CYO, P.A.L. and Our Lady of Mercy Academy] all in person,” she said. “And hopefully, I will be bringing back a gold medal for them to try on!”

A worthy goal. Best of luck, TeamUSA.

Tysheem Griffin, 17


Track and field: 400-meter dash

Griffin has Waardenburg syndrome, a rare group of genetic conditions that causes hearing loss and changes in the pigmentation of the hair, skin and eyes. Those with the condition often have pale blue eyes, as Griffin does, or eyes that are different colors.

A champion is born

Griffin, a first-time Paralympian, said he knew he wanted to be a Paralympian when he was 7 years old. “When I was in BOCES, every year we’d go to the Special Olympics competition. They allowed me to run and I came in first and I loved it.”

Cool, calm and collected

“I focus on myself and I warm up and I pray right before every race,” Griffin said about calming his pre-competition nerves.

Great expectations

“I always remain focused and motivated to be a great athlete.”

Medal count

“I have over 75 medals from the 100-meter, 200-meter and 400-meter dash, and 4x100 relays.”

Win some, lose some

“It’s not always about winning. It’s about the experience and seeing my family there when I compete. I like to win my race and have fun. I don’t like losing, but who does.”

He’s a fan

Griffin said he admires Olympic sprinter LaShawn Merritt, who won gold and bronze in Rio in August in the 4x400-meter relay and the 400-meter dash, respectively. “He said it the best: ‘Got it . . . you can’t buy it . . . you have to work hard . . . it will pay off.’ ”

Jaclyn Smith, 23

Williston Park


Smith has ocular albinism, a genetic disorder that results in a melanin deficiency in the eyes. Lack of normal pigment leads to reduced eyesight, involuntary rapid movement of the eye and sensitivity to sunlight.

A champion is born

“I first knew that I wanted to be a Paralympian when I made my second national team in 2014. When I made my first national team in 2013, I thought I made the team out of luck. I didn’t believe that I was experienced or talented enough as a rower to make the national team again the following year. At that point, I wasn’t even sure if I was prepared to make the sacrifices to train hard enough in order to have a shot at becoming a Paralympian. When I made the team in 2014, I had a major breakthrough. I finally knew that the only thing that could or would ever stop me was me. When the lineup was named in 2014 for the World Championship boat that would head to Amsterdam, I knew that whatever I set my sights on and worked hard for could be accomplished. It was at that moment that I told myself I was going to devote my time to training hard and improving my rowing every day so I could have the opportunity of becoming a Paralympian.”


The road less traveled

“The biggest challenge I have had on the road to Rio has been the way our society portrays Para-athletes and their respective sports. I was born with ocular albinism, so since birth I have always had to adapt to many things, whether it be throughout my schooling, playing sports growing up and so on. Therefore, I do not consider my disability a challenge; it’s just life. As for injuries that have caused hurdles throughout this Paralympic quadrennial for me, that’s just part of the sport. When you train at an elite level, you are pushing your body to new limits that it has never experienced before, so there is always the heightened risk for injuries. What you don’t know going into this as a Para-athlete is that there are many people who do not understand that Para-athletes train and work just as hard as the athletes who compete in the same sport during the Olympics. From televised coverage of the Paralympic Games being only a decimal of the coverage that the Olympic Games receive, I know that we, as Para-athletes, have a long way to go for the world to become more educated and understand about all the things that we can do!”


Cool, calm and collected

Smith has a ritual for easing her pre-competition nerves. “I am big on reflecting and visualization before any big race I enter. Not only does it help with my nerves, but it also gets my adrenalin pumping. I will pop my headphones in, get some music blasting and think about races I have had in the past; the good ones and the bad ones. I think about what has gone well for me, what has gone wrong and how I can improve on mistakes I have made for the race I’m about to compete in. I think about my loved ones and everyone who has contributed toward getting me to this stage.”


Great expectations

“Rowing is a sport for the vertically gifted, and although where I stand at 5’9” might be considered tall for many, I am by far the smallest in my boat. Instead of letting this discourage me, I use it to fuel my determination to work harder every day in order to make up for that difference and become the most dependable rower in the boat. I won’t stop until I am the best I can be and even then, I know that there is always room for improvement.”


Medal count

“I have two silver medals from the past two World Championships; Amsterdam 2014, and France 2015. I have two golds from the past two Head of the Charles Regattas 2014 and 2015 in Boston, where my teammates and I hold the course record, all of which are in the LTA 4+ (Legs, Trunk and Arms Four with Coxswain) category. Also, I have a silver medal from the Dad Vail Regatta, which is a large collegiate race that takes place in Philadelphia.”


Win some, lose some

“Between training up in Boston and working and living in Connecticut, there is no better feeling than coming home to the place I will always call home. Long Island is filled with the people that I love and the schools, organizations and places that have made me who I am today. So although I am enjoying every moment of this incredible journey and cannot wait to get to Rio to put everything on the line as we race for the gold, I am just as excited to get home to see and thank the people that have helped me get to this point. I cannot wait to thank them all in person, and hopefully I will be bringing back a gold medal for them to try on!


Taking the good with the bad

“The thing I love the most about rowing is the feeling I get when the boat I’m in really starts to pick up speed. You can feel the water moving underneath you and the wind blowing on your face. I imagine that flying would feel something like this; there is no better feeling! The thing that I like the least about rowing would have to be the long winters we experience here on the East Coast.”

She’s a fan

“An Olympian that I really admire would be [U.S. distance runner] Abbey D’Agostino. She competed in the Olympics in the women’s track and field 5,000-meter. Abbey was involved in a chain-reaction fall during the heats of her race with a runner [Nikki Hamblin] from New Zealand. Instead of scrambling to get up and keep running, Abbey went to the New Zealander to help her up and encouraged her to keep running. Her act of kindness really touched me because that is what the Olympic spirit is all about — bringing people from all over the world together for a clean and fair competition.”

Steve Serio, 28


Wheelchair basketball, guard

Serio had a spinal tumor removed when he was 11 months old, and it impaired his ability to walk.He turns 29 on Sept. 8, the day his team plays host country Brazil.

A champion is born

“I knew I wanted to be a Paralympian in 2005,” said Serio, who won bronze with the men’s basketball team in London in 2012. “That was my first USA Junior Men’s team and I was 17 years old. We won gold with that team in England. and after being on that team, I knew I wanted to see how much I could accomplish in this sport.”


The heart grows fonder

“The biggest challenge is being away from my friends and family. I’ve been living in Germany the last five years playing professionally and training year-round. The fact that I don’t see my friends and family as much as I should is for sure a struggle I always have. But the fact that they are always behind me gives me a lot of strength going into the games.”


Cool, calm and collected

“I always find something to smile about before each game,” Serio said of calming his nerves before competing. “It just calms me down and focuses me on what needs to be done to be successful. Perspective is a big key for me.”


Great expectations

“I think I’m driven, I’ve set my goals high, and I love being a good teammate. When you accomplish a goal together, through the ups and downs of training all together as a team, it’s a special bond that is created and I love accomplishing those goals together.”


Medal count

“Just from the Men’s National team, I have three Parapan Am Games gold medals, two World Championship silver medals and one Paralympic bronze medal.”


Taking the good with the bad

“What I like the most is how much the sport has given me. I’ve been able to attend an amazing college at the University of Illinois, play/live overseas and experience a new culture and meet amazing people all around the world that will be friends for the rest of my life. I will never be able to repay this game for what it’s given me. What I like least is being away from my friends and family here in the States. Playing and competing at a high level means you have to make sacrifices. It’s something I always struggle with, but I know they are behind me.”


He’s a fan

“To be honest, I really admire all Olympians and Paralympians. I know the hard work we all put in and the sacrifices everyone has to make. To wear those USA letters across your chest is an amazing feeling, and once you compete in an Olympics/Paralympics, you’re in the club or the brotherhood forever. One Paralympian that I will always admire is my old teammate Paul Schulte. He was the guy growing up I always wanted to be like. He was an amazing leader and an even better person off the court.”

Billy Lister, 34

Cold Spring Harbor


Lister was diagnosed with a rare and acute brain abnormality when he was 15. He had invasive brain surgery a year later to correct it, but experienced post-surgical swelling several months later that led to some loss of function. When he was 17 he had a stroke that left him paralyzed on his left side. He regained some muscle strength but needs the help of his service dog, Potter.


The accidental champion

“There really was never a definitive moment I knew I wanted to be a Paralympian. I am still very new to the Paralympic movement, having only been competing fully for just over two years. Being active and challenging myself physically was a rebirth to a new life for me, and gradually led to higher levels of competition and success. It wasn’t until January 2015 when I moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that I fully dedicated and committed myself to the goal of becoming a Paralympian.”


Cool, calm and collected

Lister said he keeps pre-race jitters at bay “by being solely focused on my process . . . Blocking out external distractions by listening to my mind helps me calm down.”


Achieving greatness

“Working hard every single day, and using each minute within those days dedicated to bettering myself as an athlete and overall person only leads to great things.”


Breakfast of champions

“A bowl of oatmeal with some raisins and honey. On race days I’ll add a piece of toast with peanut butter!”

Medal count

“The most important I’ve won is from Paralympic Trials in July. That medal was for being the first overall male two-wheel cyclist, and secured my spot on the 2016 Paralympic team. It is one I’ll cherish forever.”

Win some, lose some

“Knowing that you left everything out on the racecourse; that you put all your dedication, all your love, all your hate, all your life, into your race. Regardless of the outcome, you will always be successful if you accomplish that.”

The good and the bad

“I love the freedom of cycling, and the fact that it allows me to push my limits every time I step onto a bike. There’s something to be said about a sport that consistently and daily tests you both physically and mentally. I grew up playing team sports, so being an elite athlete in a dominantly individual sport such as Paralympic cycling was an adjustment, and something I’m still getting used to.”

He’s a fan

“The Olympian and athlete I most admire is Muhammad Ali. He has always been someone I’ve looked up to.”

Michael ‘Mikey’ Brannigan, 19

East Northport

Track and field

Brannigan is autistic. He is a top distance runner with local, state and national titles, and was Sports Illustrated’s high school athlete of the month in February 2015. Last October, Brannigan defeated 2012 Paralympic champion Peyman Nasiri Bazanjani of Iran in the 1,500 meters at the world championships in Doha, Qatar.

A champion is born

“When my coach [Sonja Robinson] told me about the opportunity that I could make a U.S. team last year.”

The long and steady road

Brannigan said his biggest challenge preparing for the Games has been “improving my training and patience.”

Cool, calm and collected

“I keep with my routine — warm up, stretch, stretch with my coach, relax” to ease pre-race jitters, Brannigan said.

What makes you a great athlete?

“Hard work. I have a gift from God.”

Breakfast of champions

It’s “different things depending on training that day.”

Medal count

Hundreds. Brannigan is especially proud of being a two-time Paralympic national champion, a two-time New Balance national champion, a Paralympic world champion and the world record holder in the 1,500 and 5,000 meters.

Victory laps

“Having fun, enjoying the sport” is the best thing besides winning, Brannigan said.

He’s a fan

“Matt and [2016 1,500-meter Olympic champion] Matthew Centrowitz, the best father/son team; they tell me to keep going for my goals. [1996 Olympic decathlon champion] Dan O’Brien, because he never gave up. And [1964 Olympic champion and distance runner] Billy Mills because of his courage.”

Lora Webster, 30

Point Lookout

Sitting volleyball

Webster was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in her left tibia when she was 11. She had a rotationplasty to remove the cancerous bone, which included the knee. The procedure included rotating her lower leg 180 degrees and connecting it to the remnants of the femur, allowing her to play sports. She was fitted with a prosthesis in 1998.

Webster is a graduate of Stony Brook University and is a four-time Paralympian. She won a bronze at the Paralympic Games in Athens in 2004, and silver in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012.


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