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Steve Serio

A Few Minutes With Steve Serio

Vince Lara at the University of Illinois speaks with Steve Serio, who just led the Team USA paralympic wheelchair basketball team to a gold medal in Tokyo.

Click here to see the full transcript.

VINCE LARA: Hi, and welcome to another edition of A Few Minutes With, the podcast that showcases Illinois College of Applied Health Sciences. I'm Vince Lara, and today I'm speaking with wheelchair basketball star, Steve Serio, who just led Team USA to a gold medal in the Tokyo Paralympics. We'll talk about why he picked basketball, why he picked Illinois, and what's next in his career.

All right. So Steve, thanks again for taking the time. I really appreciate it. And everybody here at Illinois is so proud of all your accomplishments. And as a New York boy, I'm especially proud. So Brooklyn guy here. I know you're from New York. I know you were a sports fan growing up, right? So what inspired you to try to play sports? Like what was the first thing that you said, I know I can do this?

STEVE SERIO: Yeah, that's a great question. And as someone who lives in Brooklyn, we might have to take this offline and kind of talk about some of the spots that both me and you have noticed over the years.

VINCE LARA: Sounds good.

STEVE SERIO: But yeah, you know, I don't necessarily think that there was one specific moment that turned me into an athlete. I think I was born as an athlete. I acquired my injury-- my disability-- when I was 11 months old. So I never knew what it was like to play a sport with my able-bodied friends under the same playing conditions. I've always had to have it adapted to my abilities. And it wasn't until I found a wheelchair basketball when I was about 14 or 15 years old, where I learned how to embrace my insecurities. And I learned that by embracing my insecurities and being the best version of myself as an athlete. I was able to shatter any limitations anyone would ever try to place upon me.

VINCE LARA: I remember you saying that basketball wasn't your first love, right? You were mostly a baseball guy, I think, if I had had that right.

STEVE SERIO: Yeah, I was a big baseball player growing up, big Yankees fan. It was a sport that I actually felt a little bit more comfortable playing with my able-bodied friends, because there's so many breaks in the action. When it was my turn to hit, I would get up to the plate, I would hit the ball, and one of my friends would run down to first for me, and then I would take his or her place when the play was over. So while it was a lot of standing around, it allowed me to kind of be a part of the game with my able-bodied friends and my able-bodied athletes.

So I was a big baseball player growing up. But I think I made the conversion to basketball OK. So.


VINCE LARA: Yeah. And so what led you to that? I think I remember you saying there was a wheelchair basketball place that you could go that was kind of nearby where you grew up.

STEVE SERIO: Yeah. So through a connection with a physical therapist, I learned, when I was about 14 or 15, that there was a wheelchair basketball team that was playing and training about 10 minutes away from where I grew up. And I never knew about it. This was before the internet, this was before social media, so I had no way of knowing. And I didn't necessarily seek out basketball, it was just the first adaptive sport that was introduced to me.

And I remember sitting in a basketball wheelchair for the first time and just feeling free from my disability for the first time in my life. It was like this was something I was meant to do and this was something that I'm going to continue to pursue for the rest of my journey.

VINCE LARA: Now, I know you've mentioned Coach Frogley in the past. Is he what led you to Illinois? Like, how did you, being in New York-- and I can tell you this from being in New York, I don't even think about the Midwest, and I never did. So how did you make that connection to go to Illinois and to pursue being here?

STEVE SERIO: Yeah, sure. That's a great question. So the National Wheelchair Basketball Association is the nonprofit that runs wheelchair basketball in the US. And they have a number of different divisions, matching people's age, ability level, all throughout all throughout their careers. So when I started playing, I was playing on the varsity, in the varsity Division. Which was basically like the same as the AAU Division, where you go and you compete against other clubs from other parts of the country.

And what collegiate coaches do is they meet up at these tournaments, and they go through the normal recruiting style. I was recruited by a number of University programs as my junior and senior year in high school progressed. But I felt just a deep connection to not only Mike Frogley but to the University of Illinois. The University of Illinois is the birthplace of wheelchair basketball. It's kind of the birthplace of adaptive sports in the US, and I wanted to be a small part of that legacy.

I had connected to being a part of a movement or an impact that was greater than just myself, and it was greater than just wins or losses. So I knew, from the very beginning, that the University of Illinois was going to be the right place for me.

VINCE LARA: Now, did Coach Frogley, was he the coach that had the most impact on you, do you think?

STEVE SERIO: Yeah, absolutely. And I think one of the reasons why is because he taught me not only how to be a great athlete, but how to be great leader. He would always consistently raise the bar for his players to not only expect more but to demand more from this life. Adaptive sports, in my opinion, has a greater impact on people with disabilities than able-bodied sports have on able-bodied athletes. And like I said, the University of Illinois, it provided that sense of you're a part of something that's bigger than just yourself.

VINCE LARA: You still stay connected to Illinois, especially the DRES program and wheelchair basketball. What teammates do you still stay in touch with? I know Matt Buchi is a close friend, correct? Our current coach. Do you still stay in touch with a lot of your former teammates here?

STEVE SERIO: Yeah, absolutely. So like you said, Matt Buchi was a former teammate of mine and somebody I stay in contact with. The coach of the women's team, Steph Wheeler, is somebody that I continuously reach out to for advice.

We're just returning home from Tokyo. I got a chance to play against a former teammate of mine in the gold medal game. So that was a really cool and unique experience. We had a moment after the game, and obviously team Japan and himself were a little disappointed in the outcome, but we just sat there on the court, after playing a Gold medal game, and just reflected on where this all started. And I remember doing drills, battling up against him in practice, at U of I over 10 years ago, and here we are fighting to win a gold medal at the highest possible stage the sport has to offer.

So it was the birthplace of a lot of great things that would occur for me on the court, but a lot of great relationships were off the court as well.

VINCE LARA: I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you about this-- you mentioned, at the end of the Tokyo games, that this was likely the end for you in terms of playing competitively in the Paralympic Games. So what happens now? You have a degree from University of Illinois in Kinesiology. So do you want to coach? Do you think about a grad school start-- starting grad school? Like, what's next for you?

STEVE SERIO: Vince, I think I have been avoiding that question for the last 10 years. And to be honest, the fact that it's only been about three weeks after the Tokyo games, I don't have a concrete answer for you. I will say that I am enjoying the downtime and kind of reflecting on the experience that the last 18 months and what happened in Tokyo has brought me and my loved ones. I'm absolutely incredibly grateful for that experience.

I think it's important not to necessarily rush into anything. I definitely want to stay involved with wheelchair basketball and adaptive sports. Like you said, that could be in coaching, that could be in mentoring, that could just be staying in touch with the next generation of adaptive sports athletes and trying to help them on their journeys. So I definitely want to stay involved, but the exact way I'm going to is not necessarily defined yet.

And I'm OK with that. I'm enjoying the downtime right now after Tokyo.

VINCE LARA: Understood. Well, I really appreciate your time, Steve. And again, just from the University standpoint, we're so proud of everything that you've done and how you've been a tremendous representative for UIUC and for AHS too, for college of Applied Health Sciences. So thanks, and thanks for the time speaking with me.

STEVE SERIO: Yeah. Of course, Vince. 

VINCE LARA: My thanks to Steve Serio. For more podcasts on Illinois College of Applied Health Sciences, search A Few Minutes With on iTunes, Spotify, iheartradio,, and other places you get your podcast fix. Thanks for listening, and see you next time.

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