Kicking her way into history
SHU alumna Brianna Salinaro makes Paralympic debut in para Taekwondo
Brianna Salinaro hated her physical therapy appointments.
She hated having to leave whichever class she was in and hear all the kids ask where she was going as she left the room. To her, physical therapy told everyone in big bright letters that she was different.
Cerebral palsy already made walking and balancing hard for her, why did it need to make every day feel so painful too?
“It made me feel like the odd one out,” she said. “It always just felt like a chore, it never felt like anything fun. You’re 10-years old sitting on the floor, putting yourself in pain to walk correctly when all of your friends can already walk correctly, and you just don’t understand why. … It felt more like a punishment than it did anything else.”
But it’s the years and countless hours of physical therapy that have made the Sacred Heart University graduate dominant in para Taekwondo.
No longer is it something she despises, but something that she looks forward to, that she makes a priority. With each appointment, she feels herself getting stronger, more agile to perform her quick spin kicks on the mat to defeat opponents.
“Once I got into the sport and realized my potential in the sport, I found a really good place to do physical therapy and I just fell in
love with it. It’s become a major part of my training routine,” she said. “Now that I’m older, I understand the importance of it and realize that it’s not a punishment whatsoever.”
After combining her disability with the sport she’s dedicated her life to, Salinaro’s career has become historic. She’s become the first female athlete to represent the United States in para Taekwondo while also becoming the first athlete in the sport with CP to compete on the world stage.
This summer, after a year’s delay, Salinaro will perform on the sport’s biggest stage, making her Paralympic debut in the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo where para Taekwondo will take place for first the time in the Paralympics.
“You talk about this event, you work for this event like this is the one goal for four or five years now and you just talk and talk and talk and now it’s actually happening,” she said. “The fact that it’s actually happening is so surreal because it seemed so far away, like it seemed like the journey just kinda swiped in a blink of an eye and now we’re here.”
FROM TIP-TOED TO TAEKWONDO
To Brianna’s mom, Donielle Salinaro, the first sign was the trail of shoes. Even before she turned 1, Brianna for some reason could not keep her shoes on. She wasn’t pulling them off, but they’d just constantly fall off her feet.
When she later learned to stand and walk Brianna never put her feet flat on the ground and instead walked solely on her tiptoes.
“It was kinda bizarre, but people kept saying, ‘Oh, it happens and at some point, they’ll come down,’ ” Donielle recalls.
Brianna’s feet never came down. So, Donielle took Brianna to the doctors for answers. It was the eighth doctor they saw that confirmed Brianna had spastic diplegia cerebral palsy, which causes spasticity in the legs and lower body.
It was the explanation for her toe-walking and her lack of balance and flexibility. Yes, there was no cure, there still isn’t, but Donielle and her husband were committed to not letting the diagnosis limit Brianna.
At age 2, Brianna underwent a surgery to lengthen her Achilles tendons to enable her to walk flat-footed.
“From Day One when we found out she had cerebral palsy, I can definitely say that my husband and myself never treated her with a disability,” Donielle said. “It was like, ‘So, OK you can’t do kickball in the street, not the end of the world. But you know what, try a bit harder next time.’ That was the thought process.”
Brianna, like most kids, spent her childhood trying out a variety of sports, including soccer and softball. But none stuck with her.
That was until she went to a friend’s birthday party in fifth grade at a Taekwondo gym and immediately became hooked. The kicks, the power, the selfdiscipline and determination
were all encompassing to her, and she wanted more. She immediately signed up for classes, often coming to the gym four days a week and finding a way to show up on the weekends to help during birthday parties.
“She absolutely just fell in love with it,” Donielle said. “It gave her an outlet where she felt like it was something that she could potentially do, which is great. Which is wonderful because they’re a lot of sports prior to that sport that there was no way it was going to happen. So, she felt like she could fit in there.”
FINDING THE WORLD OF PARA TAEKWONDO
Salinaro loved Taekwondo, but there came a point in high school where she felt like it didn’t love her back.
She was always losing. And it didn’t help her body wasn’t always on her side. With Salinaro’s CP, oftentimes when her brain tells her legs to do something, she can’t rely on them to listen. If she’s asking them to perform a simple kick on the mat, instead they might wobble or perform the kick with a lack of power.
“I kept thinking to myself, ‘I can’t keep doing this sport able-bodied wise. I’m losing all the time; I’m sacrificing all my time and I keep losing and I just don’t want to be involved anymore,’ ” Salinaro said. “I didn’t want to quit, but like I just knew there was no way for me.”
Curious to see what other options there were for people with disabilities, Salinaro, then 16, decided to Google ‘Para Sports.’ She had never watched the Paralympics before nor had any knowledge of Para Sports.
A new world opened in front of her. She could continue the sport she loved in para Taekwondo while competing and training with others just like her.
“It allowed me to enjoy it more,” Salinaro said. “It also just gave me a bigger
goal. Like with able-bodied, I didn’t have the goal of going to the Olympics or competing internationally. I did have the goal of making the national team and para Taekwondo allowed me to do that. It just opened a lot of doors that I didn’t expect for myself, which made it a lot more exciting.”
Salinaro became the first female U. S. athlete in the sport and the first athlete with CP to compete in para Taekwondo on the world stage. Her disadvantage in the sport is still present since most athletes who compete have upper-body amputations and thus have better lower-body balance than her.
But that didn’t stop her fighting able-bodied competitors and doesn’t stop her now.
She trains two to four hours a day, five days a week spending time on the mat perfecting kicks, conditioning her body in the gym and sitting through extensive physical therapy sessions — something she’s done since she was first diagnosed to strengthen her lower-body muscles.
While attending Sacred Heart University, she’d drive an hour and 20 minutes each way from Fairfield to South Windsor three to four days a week to train at Styles United Transformative Martial Arts.
Since para Taekwondo is still relatively new in the U.S., most of Salinaro’s competitions took place internationally. Two to five times a semester, she’d meet her coach in a different country and compete. In all, she’s competed in more than 17 different countries.
Before graduating from SHU in the spring of 2020, her schedule consisted of training, international competitions and schoolwork.
“I never really experienced the college life. Like I wasn’t your average college student. I was either in a different country or training,” she said. “It was definitely a sacrifice I had to make and one I would make again no problem.”
REACHING THE PARALYMPICS
Salinaro, who competes in the K44-58kg Sparring division, placed eighth at the 2019 para Taekwondo World Championships and was the fifth seed in the European Championships that year.
In January 2020, she received the sport’s No. 4 world ranking and officially earned her spot on Team USA for the 2020 Paralympics.
“The night that it did get announced, it was amazing. It was just, I can’t even put it into words, like how excited I was,” Salinaro said. “I just didn’t know what to do with myself because I was so excited.”
Less than three months later, however; Salinaro’s life did a spin kick of its own as the sports world came to a screeching halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Immediately gyms all over the country, including in Connecticut and in New York, where Salinaro is originally from, shut down.
With no competitions, Salinaro focused on finishing up her studies ahead of her college graduation that spring and continue with physical therapy. It was during this time away from competing and training she began to feel pain in her right hip.
It came doing the simplest tasks, like sitting down at the dinner table, driving her car and even walking.
“It felt like somebody was pinching me, like pinching my hips,” she said. “I know tightness because I’ve been tight my whole life, but it was a different type of pain. It was super uncomfortable.”
A doctor confirmed she had torn both her right and left hip labrum and needed surgery on each.
With the Paralympics postponed a year, Salinaro had both surgeries, including the one on her left hip in January 2021. She worked with a personal trainer to keep her upper body conditioned and in shape while rehabbing.
This past March with her body healed and gyms back opened, she began training again for her Paralympic debut. In June, she moved to Oklahoma to train with the national team before leaving for Tokyo.
“I’m healed now and better than ever, honestly,” she said. “It was perfect timing.”
Salinaro is excited to show the world her sport and aspires to become Team USA’s first athlete to medal in the para Taekwondo.
For Donielle, seeing her daughter make history in the sport she has loved for so long and poured endless hard work into is immeasurable. Watching Brianna compete in the Paralympics this month will be the icing on the cake to the already large amount of pride she feels.
“She deserves it. If one person deserves it out there, it’s her,” Donielle said. “Just the fact that she’s getting on a flight to Japan in less than 30 days and going to go represent our country is just, I’m speechless about it. I can’t share with you how proud I am of her. It’s enormous.”