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Steve Serio
Steve Serio won a bronze with Team USA in London and gold in Rio.

Steve Serio Is Ready for His Fourth Paralympics

You might ask yourself how a New York City guy who knew nothing about wheelchair basketball until he was 15 ended up at a wheelchair basketball powerhouse in the cornfields of Central Illinois.

“I was drawn to the history,” Steve Serio said. “Wheelchair basketball was started at the University of Illinois, and when you step foot on campus and get a chance to wear that jersey, you just know that you are a part of decades and decades of such a big movement in the Paralympics.”

Now 33, Serio is himself an icon in wheelchair basketball. The 2021 Paralympics in Tokyo will be his fourth—having competed for Team USA at the Paralympic Games in 2008, 2012 and 2016—and he won a bronze medal with Team USA in London and gold in Rio in 2016.

But life has been anything but easy for the Illinois alum, who has been paralyzed since he was 11 months old, when had surgery to remove a spinal tumor.

“During those first 11 months the tumor became infected and inflamed and actually crushed my spinal cord, resulting in the incomplete paralysis of my lower extremities,” he said.

A competitive person and a long-time sports fan, Serio’s condition didn’t stop him from playing sports. But in middle school, his school board did, refusing to let him compete alongside his able-bodied classmates.

He said that was the first time he felt he was disabled, and he needed to find an outlet for his competitive nature. He was a baseball fan, rooting for his hometown Yankees. But at age 15, he discovered there was a wheelchair basketball team just 10 minutes from where he lived. He didn’t know anything about the sport, but from the first time he sat in a basketball wheelchair, he was hooked.

“It was empowering. It was the first time in my life that I ever felt free, and that I had some control over my life.”

In two short years, Serio was a member of Team USA. By 2005, he was on campus in Urbana-Champaign for a recruiting visit and encountered Illini basketball players such as Deron Williams and Dee Brown, who were on their way to the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed.

“They could not have been nicer, and it was one of the first times I was treated like an athlete,” Serio told Team “I wasn’t an adaptive sports athlete. I wasn’t a wheelchair basketball player. They just treated me like a member of Illinois, and I’ll never forget that.”

By that time, Serio also knew about the prominent wheelchair basketball program that had been founded by Tim Nugent, the first Director of the Rehabilitation Education Center and the Division of Rehabilitation Education Services (DRES). Nugent-coached teams competed in the first National Wheelchair Basketball Association tournament and from 1948-1970 finished in the top four of the standings 13 times and won the national championship on three occasions.

When Serio visited, Mike Frogley had inherited the coaching mantle from Nugent, having established his own bona fides in the sport. Frogley played for Team Canada, and then guided Team Canada to back-to-back gold medals in 2000 and 2004, as well as a Paralympic silver medal in 2008.

That was not lost on Serio during his recruiting trip.

“Coach Frogley was an icon in our sport,” Serio said. “He was one of the big reasons why I had such a long and successful career.” Serio said he learned from Frogley to never be complacent and keep growing as a person, player and leader.

Serio earned his bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, and then went on to play professionally for RSV Lahn-Dill, in Wetzlar, Germany, as well for his hometown New York Rollin’ Knicks, a wheelchair basketball team that plays in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association.

Even the COVID-19 pandemic—which resulted in the Tokyo Paralympic Games being postponed a year—proved to be a learning opportunity.

“I am not well-equipped to deal with uncertainty and in 2020, that was the entire tone. I was living in New York City at the height of the pandemic (when the Paralympics were postponed). I just focused on my mental well-being, and worked with a sports psychologist, and it’s prepared me for a successful 2021, not only on the court, but as a well-rounded person and leader as well.”

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