Disabled triathlete proves three good limbs are plenty

Tony Troccoli  Credit: Inland Inferno Triathlon Club
To Tony Troccoli, playing basketball used to be a workout; he was a normal, SportsCenter-watching, mainstream sports fan, and a very casual participant. Triathlons and Ironmans were the weird sports only fitness nuts were crazy enough to try.

That was 13 years ago, before the accident.

Now Troccoli is in upstate New York, itching for the start of the Isuzu Ironman USA Lake Placid his second Ironman competition.

In the late 1980s, Troccoli never dreamed he would get involved in an event like an Ironman. Then again, he also never dreamed that a serious motorcycle accident would nearly take his life.

In September 1987, Troccoli was involved in an accident so severe that only his helmet saved him from an early grave. Troccoli lived, but lost the use of his left arm. In a matter of seconds, he went from normal to handicapped, and SportsCenter was no longer a priority.

Needless to say, the accident and the permanent damage to his left arm devastated Troccoli. He had limited control of his bicep muscle, but outside of that, no use of his dangling left arm. It took him a while to come to grips with the fact that he could no longer play the sports he loved.

If youre born blind, its easier to cope with it, Troccoli said. I was running and playing sports when I wasnt handicapped. That made it a lot harder after my accident.

Eventually, the Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., resident turned to alternative forms of exercise to stay in shape.

After the accident, I took up cycling, Troccoli said. It was fun, but it got old pretty quick.

Merely going for a ride was a chore for Troccoli, who has to Velcro his left hand to the handlebar and basically ride one-handed. He had to learn to crash, which he does only on his right side, because he couldnt protect his left side.

Despite his limitations, however, Troccoli became a good cyclist.

Bored of cycling but surrounded by new friends, Troccoli was soon introduced to the crazy sports of the fitness nuts.

I saw some people doing some half-Ironmans, Troccoli said. It looked like a lot of fun, so I tried to do one. After that I immediately wanted to do an Ironman.

What a difference a challenge makes. Troccolis new attitude and perspective on life propelled him into the energy bar-eating, twice-a-day training world of the endurance freaks.

To compete in the Ironman, however, Troccoli was required to do a bit more than cycling. He had to teach himself how to swim.

At first, because I just used my one arm, I swam in circles, Troccoli says. I never learned how to swim before [the accident] and I had to start from the beginning and learn how to do it. That taught me some patience.

As with the biking, though, Troccoli soon overcame the disadvantages associated with his lame arm. I enjoy the water now, Troccoli says.

Troccoli started to learn all kinds of new things about his body as he trained. The most important lesson he learned was that he could overcome the challenges with which his left arm presented him.

I learned how to adapt, Troccoli says. I got discouraged, but thats normal. Everyone gets discouraged.

It was an important lesson: Troccoli didnt think that he was disabled when he was competing. He was just like everyone else, trying to finish the race. Eventually, Troccoli said, that philosophy began to translate into his regular life.

But the challenges persisted. Troccoli still held a full-time job, and finding time to train was difficult. So, he came up with a new way of holding himself accountable: friends.

Troccoli founded the Inland Inferno Triathlon Club, a group dedicated to training experts and beginners for triathlons and Ironman competitions.

It has been great, Troccoli said of the club. There is a wealth of knowledge there and everything is a shared experience. Ive learned so much from those people. They have all helped me.

Finally, in 1999, Troccoli was ready. He participated in Ironman Canada, his first such event. It was a difficult race for the 35-year-old, who admittedly struggled, bonking on the bike and the run.

But he finished.

It was an watershed experience for Troccoli. After his motorcycle accident, he kept the helmet that saved his life. When he returned to California after Ironman Canada, he threw the helmet away.

Before Canada I wasnt really over my injury, Troccoli admits. Maybe there was a little denial there. I kept the helmet as a kind of souvenir of before the accident. After Canada, I felt like I didnt need it anymore. I was no longer chasing a ghost.

Troccoli had finally come to terms with his disability in his day-to-day life. He is not racing to prove that he can do it anymore he is racing for the sheer joy of competition.

Which brings us back to Lake Placid.

Ive been anxious for the race for three weeks, Troccoli said, sounding a lot like a triathlete, not someone looking to survive. I am so ready for it. I worked on my nutrition and I know Im going to do well in this race.

He no longer pines for the days before his accident. His dream now is to participate in the grand-daddy of them all, Ironman Hawaii.

I enter the lottery for it every year, Troccoli says. That would be something special. But its not something I can control, so its not a mission of mine. My mission is to enjoy Ironmans as long as I can. And enjoy my life, too.

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