Steve Cuomo likes to tell people he is retired (after working 47 years for the Village of Floral Park) but still working (on an endeavor he started 20 years ago).
Cuomo, who lives in Shirley, isn't buying a condo in Boca Raton or going fly-fishing in the Everglades now that he is no longer the longest-serving worker in the sanitation department. Instead, he plans to spend his golden years growing Rolling Thunder, a nonprofit Shirley-based track-and-field club whose athletes all have a physical or intellectual disability, into a nationwide organization.
Cuomo, 66, started the club 20 years ago so participants could train for track-and-field events, and drew inspiration from his own life. He has a son (also named Steve) who has cerebral palsy, and volunteered as an assistant track coach at William Floyd High in Mastic, years after running the 440-yard dash as a student at Floral Park Memorial High School.
The club has grown to about 60 coaches, across three chapters, and 220 special-needs athletes, most of whom are high school students on Long Island. Students join Rolling Thunder to develop a new social group or to train to be Paralympians. The athletes range from those with autism to Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and more.
Cuomo said that though Rolling Thunder is his passion, he wouldn't have been able to run the club without a steady schedule and pay from Floral Park.
“I was a garbage man, but it gave me the opportunity to be these kids’ coach,” Cuomo said. “These kids should get every opportunity that the typical kid gets.”
The club's true goal is building students' confidence so they become productive adults, said Charlie Bell, Rolling Thunder's speed and strength-conditioning coach. Winning races helps students with disabilities see that being successful in a race perhaps means they will be successful in life, he said.
"Seeing these kids progress the way they do is tremendously important," said Bell, of North Babylon. "They're running with able-bodied people and beating them."
Huntington native Mikey Brannigan, who has autism and won a gold medal at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is a Rolling Thunder alum, and Cuomo said up-and-coming runners Daniel Van Nostrand and Catherine Shaw have the potential to be just as successful.
Since retiring in October, Cuomo said he has devoted more time to coaching students and becoming a better coach. He enrolled in USA Track and Field's coaching education program and hopes to earn a Level 2 certification focusing on endurance.
Rolling Thunder's next goal is to incorporate, earn enough money to be profitable, pay coaches a salary, and pay for athletes' travel to events, Cuomo said.
"In our lifetime, we may never find the cure for autism," Cuomo said. "So we have to do something to make these kids' lives better and help them understand how the real world functions."
Steve Cuomo's bucket list
- Grow Rolling Thunder nationwide
- Obtain a Level 2 track and field coaching certificate
- Write a book about the experience he had developing Rolling Thunder