For athletes like Steve Serio, Toyota’s $5M Paralympic investment is a game-changer
Steve Serio made his first Paralympic team in 2008 and became a gold medalist in 2016. In 13 years playing wheelchair basketball on the top international level, he’s never seen something of the magnitude that one of his sponsors, Toyota, is launching before Tokyo.
Toyota announced Monday what it calls a first-of-its-kind program: nearly $5 million in stipends and sponsorship opportunities to all U.S. Paralympic hopefuls for the Tokyo Games that open Aug. 24 and the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.
“There’s been a number of different ways sponsors have engaged in the Paralympic movement,” Serio said, “but it’s never had a direct impact the way that this will for the Paralympic athletes going to Tokyo and the athletes that are currently in the pipeline for future Paralympics.”
As part of the new Toyota U.S. Paralympic Fund, a one-time stipend of $3,000 is being offered to U.S. Paralympic sport athletes in contention to make the teams for Tokyo and Beijing. Individuals can add donations at https://support.teamusa.org/Toyota.
More than 300 athletes competed for the U.S. between the 2016 and 2018 Paralympics, with many more hopefuls who trained throughout the quads but didn’t make the team.
Athletes also have the opportunity to opt-in to sponsorship opportunities with Toyota, which in 2015 became the global mobility partner for the International Paralympic Committee and International Olympic Committee from 2017-24.
Serio has been sponsored by Toyota since 2019. He is one of 17 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic summer sport athletes that the company supports, eight of which are Paralympians.
“They [Toyota] truly treat us as athletes first,” he said. “They see us as equals in the eyes of our Olympic counterparts. We still kind of fight for that equality each and every day.”
The investment could lead to athletes extending their careers in sports where earnings don’t always cover expenses. And an increase in the exposure of the Paralympics.
The latter could have benefited a young Serio. He was diagnosed with a spinal tumor at 11 months old. Surgery to remove it resulted in partial paralysis.
In his early teens, Serio was largely unfamiliar with wheelchair basketball -- and completely unaware of the Paralympics -- even though the sport has been on the Paralympic program since the first Games in 1960.
He played with able-bodied athletes in middle school, but the local high school board on Long Island refused to let him play due to safety and liability reasons. It was the first time in his life he felt disabled.
“When I went down to my first wheelchair basketball practice, I didn’t have any expectations. I didn’t know anything about the game,” he said. “I kind of thought to myself that they played on these little Fisher-Price hoops because there’s no way you can shoot on a 10-foot hoop sitting in a wheelchair. I just didn’t understand the mechanics of it.”
At 15, he began playing for the Long Island Lightning, the only competitive junior wheelchair basketball team in the state of New York.
“I remember sitting in a chair for the first time and feeling like this was what I was meant to do from the very beginning,” he said. “It’s my escape from the world.”
Two years later, Serio was good enough to play for Team USA. He made his first Paralympic team in 2008, earned his first medal in 2012 (bronze) and was a co-captain on the 2016 team that took gold. Serio neared triple-doubles in the quarterfinals, semifinals and the final win over Spain.
“A captain is supposed to be the glue,” Serio said. “He’s supposed to be the person who gives the team what they need at that moment.”
Serio is now 33, playing club ball in Germany and taking his international career year to year. He is one of 14 finalists for the 12-man roster for Tokyo.
“When you have a disability, the world reminds you of what you can’t do every single day,” he said. “Through sport, I have learned to embrace my differences to succeed on the court by being resilient, but also inspire people with disabilities to demand more for this life.”
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