Reaching New Heights runner Giana DiLascio overcomes illness to pursue her athletic dreams
Sitting at the kitchen table while her mother makes sandwiches, Giana DiLascio is reminded that she hasn’t called her grandmother yet.
“She calls every single night,” her mom Tina says to a guest. “Do you know of any other high school kid who does that?”
No, at least not many, but there aren’t many girls like DiLascio, 16, whose long dark curly hair hides a small hole near the top of her head. There is a story behind that incision, and DiLascio doesn’t mind telling it.
It includes a celebrity sighting, a trip to Disney World and now, being the lead runner for Hasbrouck Heights High School.
But for just a moment, DiLascio pauses. She has to call her grandmother when she’s done, but for now, she’s talking about Hydrocephalus, the condition that could have killed her if gone untreated and the question she used to pose to her mother growing up.
“Is it weird how it feels like your brain and your head is so tight? And she would say, ‘no, that’s not how it’s supposed to feel,’” DiLascio, a junior says. “I would be like, ‘OK, then.’”
These days, a lot of the questions around the track and the trail are who is that girl in orange and black for Hasbrouck Heights? DiLascio was the lead runner for the Aviators’ girls cross-country team and is a promising distance runner on the track team, specializing in the mile and two-mile.
“If she improves half as much as she did this year from last year, she will be the best cross-country runner we have ever had at Heights,” Aviators crosscountry coach Mike Ryan says. “This is a girl who never thought she could be here, and now she just believes and that’s been the whole key.”
DiLascio has her speech on Hydrocephalus down for when people ask, and a YouTube video about it she made with her mom. Her life motto: Don’t complain.
“People say I’m always really happy,” says DiLascio.
“She really is positive, she is like the happiest, glass always half-full type,” Tina interjects.
“That’s really the only way to be,” says DiLascio. “I don’t understand people who are complaining all the time.”
Looking back, the class was “Topics in Math” and DiLascio was in sixth grade. It would be after lunch, approximately 1 p.m. As the teacher was explaining the finer points of basic algebra, DiLascio would start to feel it.
The pressure. The nausea. The feeling like she was going to vomit.
“I would get home and it would follow me the rest of the day,” says DiLascio. “It is unusual because people with Hydrocephalus usually feel their symptoms the most in the morning and at night. I was confused because it was always in the middle of the day for me.”
The feelings persisted and she went to have an MRI. She remembers it was Mother’s Day 2012. Doctors called and said they wanted a second MRI done. That was odd.
The diagnosis was instant. It was Hydrocephalus.
“I always explain it the same way. It’s when the spinal fluid tries to pass through your brain through a passageway called ventricles. Mine was blocked, so the ventricles just kept getting bigger and bigger and it was pushing against my brain and that was pushing against my skull and eyes, that’s why my headaches were getting progressively worse,” she says.
The only option is to drill hole at the top of the head, release the fluid and hope that it doesn’t reoccur.
“[Surgery] was a blur,” Tina says. “What I remember most is being petrified and dependent on my husband to keep me strong. And I remember the sigh of relief when the doctor came toward us with a smile on his face that it went well.”
DiLascio went back to school when seventh grade began. Doctors eventually cleared her for physical activities, so when she entered high school, she tried volleyball her freshman year, then winter track. Running became her passion.
“I had a goal in my mind that I wanted to go under three minutes in the 800 and when I did that, I was like, ‘wow, I can set a goal and I can work really hard every day to make that goal,’” says DiLascio. “I enjoyed the feeling of running and when I was doing it, I wasn’t worried about anything. I was just thinking: keep going and when I was done I felt great.”
Now, Giana is a full-time runner. She makes up routes in her hometown and her favorite summer activity is crosscountry camp.
“She is just amazing,” says Ryan. “I guess you have to go through something like this to get this way, but this girl has a smile on her face every single minute. We could be doing a speed workout and she might be about to pass out, but she’s smiling. She is someone that Hasbrouck Heights should make an example out of, as a person you want to be.”
But DiLascio’s tale isn’t complete without The Timberlake Story.
First, some background, the DiLascio family likes to try to win concert tickets via radio station contests. About a year after the surgery, Tina packed up the family to pick up some tickets she had won for a Blondie concert. While waiting to get the tickets, performer Juston Timberlake and his entourage entered.
“It was a crowded lobby and the kids are with me and they’re all complaining and I turn around and I see Justin,” says Tina. “He kept on walking and I’m like, ‘oh my God,’ but his manager is like, ‘no, no,’ to Justin because he stopped to wave. They’re pulling him away and I’m like, ‘but my daughter is a Make-A-Wish child!’ He stopped his guys and came right over.”
Timberlake took a picture with DiLascio, told her to keep it as her screensaver (it has since been replaced with a picture of her and her boyfriend; sorry, Justin). The story drew a lot of attention for the star’s display of kindness.
DiLascio smiles as her mother tells the story. She’s heard it many times, so there’s obviously the false embarrassment that comes when you’re a teenager and your mom is talking about you.
But she remains quietly smiling. She’s not going to complain.
AHEAD OF THE PACK Giana DiLascio finishes second in the North 1 Group 1 race at the state sectionals crosscountry meet in November 2016.