Tom Giannettino was in a dark place. And he knew it.
“I hit rock bottom and it was horrible,” says the Air Force Veteran, describing his recovery from a traumatic injury he suffered in 2010 while working undercover for the New York state police.
During the next few years, he lost his job, his identity and his purpose, and no matter how hard he tried he just couldn’t shake the burdens of guilt and anger that consumed him. Then one day he stumbled upon an image of a young woman, an Army Veteran, who was a world-class athlete competing in triathlons. She was an amputee. “That was the moment,” says Giannettino. “It just inspired me to see her and I thought if she can do a triathlon with one leg, then why can’t I do it with one arm.”
Dare2tri co-founder Melissa Stockwell
In 2013, he attended a triathlon camp hosted by Dare2tri, a non-profit paratriathlon club based in Chicago that helps and encourages athletes of all ability levels from beginner to elite. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, one of the co-founders of Dare2tri was Melissa Stockwell, the young Army Veteran whose image inspired his recovery.
And so began his journey; not necessarily through the doors of a hospital or through prescription pills; but through the grueling process of swimming 750 meters, biking 20 kilometers, and running 5 kilometers. “I soon learned that this was the mechanism that was helping me manage my daily life and gave me my inspiration to get up every day and set new goals and aspirations,” Giannettino wrote in an essay chronicling his journey titled Rock Bottom to Red, White and Blue.
As he became more and more involved with the sport, Giannettino contacted USA Triathlon and learned about the high performance development program and the monthly assistance allowance VA pays to military Veterans who meet performance standards in their particular sport.
Beginning in 2010, Congress authorized VA to pay a monthly allowance to Veterans training for or selected to compete on the U.S. Paralympic Team. The payment rates are based on VA’s vocational rehabilitation rates: roughly $600 a month for a single Veteran plus extra for dependents. That first year, about 50 Veterans qualified for allowance payments in a handful of sports.
For Giannettino, the VA benefit served two purposes: it helped with the financial burdens of preparing for competition, like travel and coaching, and it gave him additional inspiration to reach for the highest level of competition. Paratriathlon was only recently sanctioned for Paralympic competition and will debut at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio.
Giannettino is not guaranteed a spot on Team USA, and he knows he still has a long way to go. But looking back on his journey, he recognizes just how far he’s come. And that’s reason enough to celebrate.
He recently e-mailed VA to express his gratitude for the monthly allowance. “Every single dollar helps to fulfill the obligations of constant traveling and training. I can’t thank you enough for the continued commitment of helping us Veterans reach for new goals and aspirations. Most importantly representing our country, the United States of America,” he wrote.
Today, paratriathlon is one of about 30 sports recognized for international Paralympic competition and VA pays allowances to some 150 Veterans each month who are hoping to represent their country in international competition.
A full list of sport governing bodies and points of contact is available for review at http://www.va.gov/adaptivesports/docs/Paralympic_Sport_POCs.pdf
If you are a military Veteran and interested in learning more about VA’s monthly allowance for elite athletes, visit http://www.va.gov/adaptivesports/ and click on the “Training Allowance” tab.