RIO DE JANIERO, Brazil — It was the final quarter of the game. Three minutes were left. Co-captain Steve Serio got the ball and dribbled as he wheeled down the court. He stopped at the 3-point line, shot and scored on the way to his American team’s 68-52 victory over Spain on Saturday.
But this wasn’t just any wheelchair basketball game for the Westbury native. It was the gold medal final against Spain at the Paralympics in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. The 29-year-old Serio, who scored seven points and made 10 assists, had been training with his team for this moment for the last four years.
“After winning bronze at the 2012 London Paralympics, gold was our goal,” said the three-time Paralympian. “It’s a little surreal right now.”
Serio, who was paralyzed after having surgery to remove a spinal tumor, began his journey in wheelchair basketball after getting fitted for his first sports wheelchair when he was 14 years old. Up until then, he used leg braces and crutches to get around, but his mother said that never held him back.
“Disability was never much of an issue,” said Hilary Serio, who came to Rio with her husband to watch thier son for the first time on an international court. “He was very athletic, right in the thick of it, swinging over fences and climbing to the top of the monkey bars.”
Ed Serio vividly remembers the first time his son saw a wheelchair basketball game first-hand as a teenager.
“He was bug-eyed,” Ed Serio said. “They were fast. They were banging into each other. It was real sports. So he was sold right there. That’s where it all took off.”
There are minor adjustments to the game to accommodate the wheelchairs. The height of the basket, the three-point line and court size do not change and neither does the social aspect of the game.
“There’s nothing better than to be competing and training with the people that you love. I had just found my niche,” Serio said. “If I were an individual sport athlete, I’d miss that camaraderie.”
Serio joined the Long Island Lightning juniors team and went to nationals both his junior and senior year in high school. He was soon playing in the adult wheelchair league as a teenager and pursued the sport while attending University of Illinois. There, he led the team to two national championships.
“For me, this whole process has been learning on the fly,” Serio said. “Every time, I think I’ve reached the top, I feel like there’s a new challenge or a new door that opens.”
And the opportunities kept coming. A German club team caught wind of Serio’s talent, and Serio couldn’t refuse a chance to live abroad.
For the last five years, the elite athlete has been playing professionally, but after reaching his goal of a gold Paralympic medal, he’s ready to take a break and is moving back to New York. He hopes he can use his win in Rio as a platform to bring more awareness to the sport.
“I know that when I was 14 years old, growing up with a disability, I felt a little bit lost when I was told I couldn’t compete with my friends anymore,” Serio explained. “And I don’t ever want a kid to have that feeling.”
Serio’s parents said they’re disappointed with how few athletic programs New York has for kids with disabilities.
“We knew there weren’t a lot of opportunities for him in disabled sports, but that was the beginning,” said Hilary Serio. “To now see him in this venue in this country, competing, is amazing. It’s been a lot of years and a lot of work.”