Tokyo Paralympics: Track and field athlete Gianfranco Iannotta fought paralysis to achieve goal

'It is a very quick thing. You get off the line and it’s a lot of adrenaline,' Gianfranco Iannotta said


                            Tokyo Paralympics: Track and field athlete Gianfranco Iannotta fought paralysis to achieve goal
Gianfranco Iannotta of USA reacts after the victory in the men's 100 meters T52 Final at Rio 2016 Paralympic Games on September 10, 2016, in Brazil

Paralympics track and field athlete, Gianfranco Iannotta is hoping to secure yet another podium finish at the Tokyo 2020 Games. The American athlete was born with spina bifida but that didn't stop him from dreaming big and achieving bigger.

“It is a very quick thing. You get off the line and it’s a lot of adrenaline," the Garfield resident said in an interview in July 2021. "A lot of hard, fast pushing.”  Iannotta, 27, has taken part in hundreds of races around the world. Now, for the second time, he has made his position in the Paralympics, where he will be, representing Team USA, which starts from August 24, 2021.

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Born on January 24, 1994, to parents Franco and Luz, Iannotta was detected with spina bifida and was paralyzed from the waist down upon birth. He completed his graduation from Garfield High School in 2012 and later went on to Bergen Community College in Paramus, where he studied history.

It was Iannotta's father’s love for sports that sent him down the path. In 2004, he joined the New Jersey Navigators, an adaptive sports team whose members range from elementary school age into their early 20s with different disabilities. The team allowed him to try his hand at various activities, including archery, swimming, shooting, table tennis, basketball and track and field. He found he was “better at the track than any other sports.”

While playing in the team, he met Jimmy Cuevas, who remains his coach to this day. Cuevas called Iannotta “very competitive” in 2016 as they prepared for Rio. “Probably about 1% of athletes that try out for the USA team make it to that level,” the coach added. 

Gold medalist Gianfranco Iannotta of the USA poses on the podium at the medal ceremony for the men's 100m - T52 during day 3 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at the Olympic stadium on September 10, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images for Tokyo 2020)

 

In Tokyo, he’ll contend in the 100 and 400 meters, starting on August 27, 2021. Iannotta has competed in longer events, but the quick hit of speed from a sprint is his favorite.  

He has also won gold in the 100 meters and bronze in the 400 meters during his first go-around at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Iannotta won a silver medal in the 100 meters during the 2019 World Championships, as well as a bronze medal for the same event in 2017, a bronze in 2013 and a silver for the 200 in 2013. 

In a profile published on the International Paralympic Committee website, Iannotta stated that he was encouraged to get involved in sports by his parents, who wanted him to be around other children with impairments. "I hated it at first," he told the committee. "I really didn't want to do anything. Then, something clicked."

The wheelchair that he drives down the track is built for speed: It's lightweight and low to the ground with side wheels pitched inward at the top. “They are long chairs. There are two wheels to the side and one wheel to the front.  The braking and steering mechanisms are different than on a regular wheelchair,” he said. He drives his wheelchair using a lever that controls the front wheel, these wheelchairs used by track and field athletes cost thousands.“For a normal racing wheelchair, it’s about two grand, and that is not counting the wheels. The wheels are carbon fiber, and they cost another two grand. That is a chair that is made out of aluminum. If you get a chair that is made out of carbon fiber, it’s way more than that,” he said.