Tiago Cusano (center) poses for a photo with Team USA athletes at the IBSF World Cup on Feb. 16, 2019 in Lake Placid, N.Y.
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Tiago Cusano, an 8-year-old from Miami Springs, Florida, was mining for ammunition while the world’s best bobsledders prepared for their world cup runs. His ammo? Snow.
He promptly nailed three-time Olympic medalist Elana Meyers Taylor in the thigh with a snowball, then caught brakewoman Lauren Gibbs in the arm.
“Hey Tiago, have you considered baseball?” Gibbs joked.
Despite Cusano’s good arm, his dream is to bobsled. He became fascinated by the sport last winter while watching the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on TV as he recovered from cancer treatment. In late 2017, Cusano was diagnosed with an ependymoma, a rare tumor on his brain stem. He had had surgery and was recovering from two-and-a-half months of radiation when he discovered bobsled on TV.
What caught his eye?
“I like how it’s fast,” said the shy second grader.
“We go to Disney World quite a bit, and they have a test track at Epcot that goes about 60 miles per hour in a circle,” explained Tiago’s dad Kevin. “He loves roller coasters and that kind of stuff.”
Meyers Taylor then chimed in.
“Bobsledding is,” she paused, then added with a laugh, “a lot different than a roller coaster. You guys are in for a treat tomorrow. It’s not going to feel like anything at Disney World, I assure you.”
Tiago and his older sister, Gianna, along with their parents, Kevin and Elena, were in Lake Placid last week thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which grants “heartfelt wishes to kids and provides them with hope, strength and joy,” said Robert Bullock, the chief operating officer of Make-A-Wish Northeast New York. “These are kids 2 ½ to 18 years of age, all of them dealing with critical medical conditions.”
The wish includes the family, too.
Tiago’s wish was to see snow for the first time and to ride in a bobsled. The Southern Florida chapter of Make-A-Wish reached out to Make-A-Wish Northeast New York to see if they could help. Bullock knew just what to do. His father had helped organize the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid. So, he reached out to his connections. The Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA), plus USA Bobsled & Skeleton and USA Luge, could easily grant this wish. Even better, the Cusanos could come to Lake Placid during the IBSF World Cup skeleton and four-man bobsled races, meet the athletes, then ride in a bobsled the next day.
Tiago Cusano attends the IBSF World Cup as part of the Make-A-Wish program on Feb. 16, 2019 in Lake Placid, N.Y.
“Even just the anticipation of making this happen, it uplifted Tiago’s spirits while he was recovering knowing that he was going to get to do something he really enjoyed,” said Kevin, who added that the quiet little boy standing in front of the media had been bouncing off the walls after the “wish reveal” earlier in February.
Once the family landed in Albany, Tiago took every opportunity to touch the snow and hurl snowballs. But the most fun, he said, was riding in the four-man bobsled. He rode in a sled with his dad, an ORDA driver and brakeman, and Tyrone Mullings from the Jamaican bobsled team. Mullings lives and trains in Lake Placid. Elena and Gianna followed in a second bobsled.
“I know when Tiago got off the bobsled, he was a little speechless and a little bit pale,” Kevin said. “Tyrone said, ‘Actually, you look a little scared.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, a little.’ But after two minutes, that wore off and he was really excited about it.”
Asked what he liked about the bobsled ride, Tiago responded, “The curves.”
After the ride, the Cusanos toured the Olympic Training Center and learned the routine to start a bobsled.
“He got to call out all the commands,” said Bullock. “After that, they said OK, you’re a member of the U.S. bobsled team now, and they took him back into the lobby and made him his own photo ID, which he used to swipe himself in for lunch. He is now a card-carrying member of the U.S. bobsled team. It was pretty special.”
During the five-day trip, the Cusanos mingled with Olympians and Olympic medalists, including lugers Gordy Sheer and Mark Grimmette, and Meyers Taylor and Gibbs. They stayed at the Mirror Lake Inn, owned by Ed and Lisa Weibrecht, and their son, two-time Olympic alpine skiing medalist Andrew Weibrecht checked in to say hello.
“Make-A-Wish planned so many things above and beyond what Tiago’s wish really was, which was to see snow and go on a bobsled,” said Kevin. “The fact that they could schedule it around the world cup and have us meet all the athletes was a once-in-a-lifetime surprise. It was really amazing how nice they were with him and how much time they took playing with him and teaching him what they do and answering all his questions about how they train.”
“From our perspective, speaking on behalf of Make-A-Wish Northeast New York, I’ve got to say that everyone in the Olympic movement from Jack and Jared at the OTC to Amanda at USA Bobsled & Skeleton, all of the members of the bobsled and skeleton teams, the folks from the luge federation, certainly the Weibrechts, and even Mr. Mike’s where many an Olympian has knocked down a few slices of pizza, made it a complete Olympic experience,” Bullock said. “I don’t think you could have done that anywhere else in the world other than here in Lake Placid. It was beyond all expectation.”
As for those snowballs, Tiago won’t get to show his friends his new skill once he returns to warm Florida. But he plans to return to Lake Placid to bobsled again. And the trip has turned the whole family into sliders, including 12-year-old Gianna.
“We did the luge,” Tiago shared. “My sister said she wanted to do that.”