Brianna Salinaro Spreads Her Wings

By Bill Kellick | March 31, 2017, 12:43 p.m. (ET)

As the 2016 Olympic Games began in Rio last August and the opening ceremony was being broadcast around the world, Brianna Salinaro received a call from her mother.


“Brianna, four years from now we will be in Tokyo. Next time it will be your turn,” she said.


For most, saying they will be competing in the next Olympic or Paralympic Games would be just wishful thinking, or some sort of pipe dream. Even more so for someone born with a disability such as cerebral palsy. For Salinaro, 19, of Massapequa, N.Y., that dream is much more attainable now that taekwondo has been officially added to the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games program.


“Hearing that from my mom really did change my perspective on the Olympics,” said Salinaro. “Watching the 2016 Games realizing that I could very well be representing Team USA in Tokyo was just an unbelievable feeling for me. Realizing that I could be the first female USA para athlete in taekwondo at the Paralympic Games is surreal. I definitely watch the Games with more excitement and motivation than ever before.” 


Born two and a half months premature, Salinaro was diagnosed with a mild case of cerebral palsy at the age of one and a half. She had trouble keeping her shoes on because her feet were so pointed. In an effort to give her the ability to walk correctly, doctors performed surgery to lengthen both of her Achilles tendons. After six weeks with casts on both legs, she wore braces on her legs, both day and night for the next two years. Even today, she continues to wear leg braces at night. Cerebral palsy also affected Salinaro’s upper body and speech, requiring speech therapy until she was 3, and occupational therapy until the age of 8.


“Cerebral palsy affects everyone differently,” said Salinaro when asked to clear up some misconceptions about the disability. “I have spastic diplegia, which means from the waist down my muscles are tighter than usual. But for some people with cerebral palsy, they experience tightness on a certain side of their body or their muscles are so tight that they can’t speak or move correctly. Although there is surgery to help with the comfort level of a patient with cerebral palsy, it could never be cured and does not get worse or go away over time.” 


In addition to facing the challenges of growing up with cerebral palsy, Salinaro also had to endure bullying as a youngster. Depending on how tight her muscles were, she would walk with a limp, drawing the attention of her young classmates, who would call her a duck as they made fun of her in gym class or in the hallways.


Despite feeling the inevitable self-consciousness about her disability, Salinaro was resolute about participating in sports and other activities. She found welcome sanctuary in taekwondo after beginning the sport at the age of 9 in hopes of increasing her balance, confidence and overall quality of life.


“After enduring bullying as a child, taekwondo helped me tremendously in building self-esteem and confidence,” Salinaro said. “Taekwondo has forced me to face and overcome challenges I never thought I would be able to get through successfully. Taekwondo has allowed me to look at my disability as a blessing rather than a negative aspect of my life because it has allowed me to achieve goals I never thought possible.”


Those lofty goals included earning her black belt, but the road to that milestone was not a smooth and straight path. Salinaro quit taekwondo numerous times because of feeling different from the other kids and not being able to perform as well as they did. She kicked lower than anyone else and fell down frequently. However, it was her passion for martial arts that brought her back for good at the age of 14.


“After returning to taekwondo after about a year break, I was introduced to the more competitive side of the sport. I came back to a team that fully supported me and believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself, which was a major reason why I wanted to pursue taekwondo at the highest level possible. I wasn’t alone when I began my sport taekwondo journey, I started out as a beginner with two other teammates who are now lifelong friends. Watching all my able-bodied teammates struggle through our rigorous training sessions reassured me that it was okay to struggle as well, and inspired me to give it my all. After watching two of my teammates train for and make national team that year I decided I would put my best foot forward and do whatever was needed to be the best athlete I could be.”


After becomng more serious about taekwondo, Salinaro achieved her first-degree black belt in April of 2013. 


“Earning my black belt was one of the most special times in my life. Earning my black belt validated that I could accomplish a task that required not only physical strength but mental strength as well, which are two things I’ve always struggled with because of my cerebral palsy. All my friends and family came to support me. My black belt is not just a belt, it symbolizes all the hard work I’ve put in over the years and all of the internal and external challenges I have overcome.”


Salinaro’s dreams then turned to making it to the next level…being part of the U.S. National Team…but she knew the reality was more of a dream due to her disability. Once again, she felt dismayed and contemplated giving up on the sport. That is when she discovered para-taekwondo.


“I first learned about para-taekwondo in the fall of 2015 through the Team USA website. I was considering quitting taekwondo at the time and I was looking at the para sports on the Team USA website and I unexpectedly came across taekwondo. I was extremely excited. Initially, I didn’t even think of para-taekwondo as a chance to compete in the Paralympics. I thought of it as more of a chance to be able to compete on an equal playing field, meaning I could compete with people who endure physical challenges like myself. After five years of fighting able-bodied athletes, I was overjoyed and overwhelmed with excitement to find out that I could fight against someone of my level. Even though I had a strong support system behind me I knew that people thought I was crazy for dreaming about winning a gold medal at nationals. Para-taekwondo has allowed my goals to not only become much larger but more reachable as well. Cerebral palsy is no longer a disadvantage. Now the outcomes of my fights are only based on skill level.”


Para-taekwondo involves four different sparring divisions, K41 through K44. The lower the division number, the more severe the disability. Salinaro is classified as K42 and is currently the only female with world ranking points in that division. For the 2017 U.S. Open, she was consolidated into the K44 division so that she could compete against an opponent. She ended up winning the gold medal with a 5-4 victory over Jamaica’s Shauna-Kay Hines, a moment Salinaro says is her most exciting to date.


“Not only was that fight the kick start of my para-taekwondo career, but it was my first win of all my years of sparring due to the fact that I was always fighting able-bodied athletes. My opponent had an advantage coming into the fight, being that she was less disabled than me, and I was still able to come out on top. That fight is definitely one I will never forget.”


Even though all of the para-taekwondo athletes have a disability, it does not mean they’re competing on an equal playing field. The disabilities of the athletes range from amputations to cerebral palsy.


“Being that taekwondo is a new para sport, the number of athletes that are currently involved is still small which makes it difficult sometimes to fight someone of my skill level,” says Salinaro.


Salinaro trains at Ultimate Champions Taekwondo in New York under the direction of Master Andrew Oh, Master Michael Ro, and Master Soonkwon Kang, as well as at Styles United Transformative Martial Arts in Connecticut under the direction of assistant national team coach Alvaro Mendez.


“Brianna is a student who is passionate about taekwondo,” Kang says. “When she trains she always asks for feedback on how she can improve each time. There were many difficulties during her training on getting her body to do certain kicks. If someone had to do it 100 times, Brianna had to do it 10,000 times. Her perseverance and dedication to taekwondo is truly respectable.”


“One word that would describe Brianna would be "relentless", says Mendez. “Brianna just doesn't give up. Despite her lack of flexibility, she goes through all workouts constantly pushing and doing everything the best she can.”  


Currently a freshman at Sacred Heart University, majoring in health science, Salinaro plans on working in the medical field. Juggling her studies and training proves to be a challenge unto itself.


“One of the hardest things about taekwondo is the time management,” she says. “I travel an hour away from my school, four days a week to train with Coach Mendez and his team. Sometimes balancing school and taekwondo can become difficult, but I do my best to make sure I’m successful in both areas.”


Salinaro is driven by her ability to be an inspiration to many through her desire and training. 


“The most rewarding thing about taekwondo for me is the ability to show the world that people with disabilities could compete at the Olympic level, as well as the amount of people I get to inspire while on my journey to the Paralympics.”


Count Master Kang among those already inspired by this remarkable young lady.


“She went away for college and she still drove an hour every day to train at her closest school,” he says. “I respect her for her passion for taekwondo. She will go to training on any day off that she has when she has the option to stay home. I am proud of her and I know she will reach her dream of becoming an Olympic gold medalist soon.”


Currently ranked first in the world in the K42 -58kg division, and 12th in the K44 -58kg class, Salinaro has her sights set squarely on the 2020, 2024 and 2028 Paralympic Games and competing in the tournaments that will aid in her qualification.


“My competition schedule for the rest of 2017 consists of the Asian Championships in Korea during July, the Pan American Championships in Costa Rica during August, the Canadian Open in Montreal during September, the World Championships in London during October, and the IWAS Games in Dubai during November. Unfortunately I will not be able to attend all of these due to lack of funding and school obligations but my goal is to attend as many tournaments as possible this year. Due to lack of funding I have started a GoFundMe campaign to help cover the coast of competing and traveling ( Any size donation is greatly appreciated and goes a long way.”