Now Competing In A New Sport, Brianna Salinaro Has Kept Her Goal Of Competing At The Paris Game
by Lela Moore
Brianna Salinaro is still striving to be a three-time Paralympian. Only now, the latter two will have to come in a new sport.
As the first U.S. woman to compete at the Paralympic Games in taekwondo — which debuted at the 2020 Games in Tokyo — she planned to stick around for the 2024 and 2028 Games as well.
But when World Taekwondo changed which classification would be included in the Paralympic Games Paris 2024, opting for K44 athletes with upper-limb impairments, Salinaro, who has cerebral palsy, was left without a Paralympic future in the sport she’s grown up competing.
Instead of accepting her fate as a one-time Paralympian, Salinaro decided to switch sports and take up track and field. The 25-year-old is now preparing to run in the 100-meter and 200-meter T35 in her first international track and field competition — the Parapan American Games, taking place Nov. 17-26 in Santiago, Chile.
The transition has not been easy for Massapequa, New York, native. She had been active in taekwondo since the age of 9, and a competitive sparrer since 13.
During her senior year of high school, Salinaro was ready to quit taekwondo entirely until she Googled the Paralympics and told her coaches that was the direction she wanted to go. In 2016, she began competing internationally as a Para athlete. A year later, she won a bronze medal at the world championships. According to her USA Taekwondo bio, Salinaro is the first taekwondo athlete with cerebral palsy to fight on a world stage.
Salinaro eventually qualified for the Tokyo Games, where she lost in the quarterfinals and then the repechage. However, by then her future in the sport was already uncertain, as she had learned during the lead-up to the Paralympics that athletes with cerebral palsy would not be eligible to compete at the Paralympic level after Tokyo.
And yet she was not ready to give up her dream of competing at three Games — and of medaling in at least one.
Nick Mayhugh, who has cerebral palsy, became Salinaro’s inspiration after he switched from soccer to track and field and won three gold medals at the Tokyo Games in his Paralympic debut.
“If he could do that, maybe I could at least try it,” Salinaro said.
Her family and friends were taken aback by her choice of sports because Salinaro admitted that she hates running. But she discovered that sprinting gave her the same boost of adrenaline she had gotten from competing in taekwondo.
The shift in sports was made more difficult when Salinaro returned home from Tokyo with a back injury and in “a depressive state,” she said, after learning that she no longer had a place in taekwondo.
“I was at a loss, (questioning) where I would go next, or if I should just fully hang up my athletic career,” Salinaro said.
Her injury meant that she missed an entire year of track competition, which would hurt in any Paralympic cycle but was made even more of a detriment with Tokyo and Paris only being three years apart. Nonetheless, she reached out to local track coaches to gauge their interest in working with her. She also worked with her personal trainers, who helped her adjust her routine to one that would benefit a track sprinter.
Much like taekwondo, sprinting is particularly challenging for an athlete with cerebral palsy. But Salinaro has already made significant improvements, and she believes she has a strong chance at winning the 100 in Santiago.
The 200, she said, “is a work in progress,” but she expects to set a personal best in the distance in Chile and set herself up for continued success in Paris.
“It’s frustrating for me,” Salinaro said of the 200. “Mentally, I can keep going, but physically, I start to shut down. So, it’s the fight to get to the end. Don’t let your legs give out on you. It’s just such a balance of trying not to get frustrated with yourself because then you get tighter.”
Her confidence in her new sport is hard-won. As a young disabled athlete competing against able-bodied peers, Salinaro said she struggled with self-confidence and accepting herself as an athlete. Still, she said, she resisted trying Para sports because she felt there was a stigma.
“Growing up, I didn’t want to accept that I had CP. I didn’t want to become part of that community just because I wanted to be my version of normal,” she said.
She hopes her story of succeeding in not one but now two very different sports will inspire other kids to give athletics a shot.
“I never thought I’d be a Paralympic athlete, and here I am,” Salinaro said.
Lela Moore is a freelance contributor to usparatf.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.