Denise Castelli gearing up for a work out. Photo credit: Jeremy Freeman/CNN
When I called Denise Castelli last week to ask her what she remembered about the day she broke her leg, she told me in a clear and buoyant voice, “When I close my eyes I can remember everything. Down to the last breath I took before it happened, it’s so vivid in my mind.”
I had reservations about asking her this particular question, fearing that it might take her back to a difficult time, back to the point of the narrative before the hero embarks on the challenging mission and realizes what he or she is made of. Back to when the hero still has no idea that he or she is a hero at all. Denise, however, didn’t think twice about answering. This was, after all, not the first time she had been asked to tell her story.
Justin and Denise at our 56th street location
Three weeks earlier, Denise and Justin Model of the Challenged Athletes Foundation stood before a bright projector at our 56th street location, talking about their work with, for, and as challenged athletes. Justin, a member of CAF’s advisory board introduced Denise, who walked to the front of the room poised and wide-eyed, with the kind of smooth, deliberate movements we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the young and the strong. “Exactly how is this person challenged?” I wondered.
And then Denise told us her story.
It was April 22, 2008. Denise was a senior at New Haven University and the center fielder for the New Haven Chargers, playing a double header away from home against Mercy College. Denise’s right leg got caught underneath her left during her slide to steal second. In a matter of moments she suffered a spiral fracture of the tibia and fibula, an injury she would spend the next year and a half (and over 30 surgeries) attempting to heal, a process continuously hampered by the onset of infection. On November 4, 2009, when her doctors could no longer fight the osteomyelitis, Denise, who had spent most of her life playing sports was told that her limb would have to be amputated.
“I don’t even think ‘devastating’ is really the word that could describe how I felt,” recalled Denise, “I was an athlete my entire life and now I only viewed myself as a cripple and a handicap and that was a hard pill to swallow for a while.”
After the surgery to amputate her right leg, Denise was fitted for a prosthetic. “It’s not as simple as it looks in the movies,” she said, “you don’t just strap on your new leg and start walking around. It hurt and it was uncomfortable and it required a lot of trust in prosthetic itself. I couldn’t wear the leg for that long. I’d use it for two minutes a day and then get on my crutches.”
This was a turning point for Denise, a person who had always been a confident athlete, conditioned by the Just Do It attitude that accompanies the discipline and determination required to excel in sports. That same focus would come to buoy the spirits of the then 24 year-old. “I really just had to tell myself that I was learning to walk all over again. I was now a 24 year-old toddler learning to walk. During my first 5-minute walk test I didn’t think I could make it, but after 3 months I was walking all day every day without even thinking about it.”
In May 2010 Denise was encouraged by her prosthetist to attend a one-day running and mobility clinic hosted by the Challenged Athletes Foundation, an organization devoted to providing instructional and financial resources to transform (and in some cases return) physically challenged people into athletes. Started on the West Coast, CAF’s work has effected the lives of thousands of men, women, and children, providing them with the resources to get into the athletic head space of “Just Do It.” For a person who has lost a limb or is otherwise bound to the notion that one cannot literally move, this is life-altering.
Trepidatious about participating in an athletic event after nearly two years away from any sport, Denise put her anxieties aside and decided to attend. It was a decision that changed her life. “That day I ran for the first time since my amputation. They harnessed me up and gave me a ton of instructions and it was a huge moment for me and for my parents because we never thought I’d get there ever again.”
Just two weeks after the clinic Denise signed back up for softball and batted .611, the highest batting average of her career. She joined the volleyball team and tried out and was selected to be a ball girl at the 2011 US Open, receiving an on air shout out from John McEnroe and Dick Enberg during the women’s semi-final match.
Denise’s latest challenge is training for a triathlon with Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN’s Fit Nation’s 2012 Tri Challenge team. Denise is one of 7 viewers chosen to train over the next 8 months to compete in the Malibu Classic in September, covering a half mile swim followed by an 18-mile bike ride and a 4 mile run. The viewers chosen for the Tri Challenge, now in its third iteration, run the gamut from radio host to truck driver, participants who are all eager to conquer this health and fitness goal while inspiring others. You can get to know the participants and their respective causes and personal goals on the Fit Nation profile page.
Photo credit: Jeremy Freeman/CNN
Denise trains at her local YMCA and will begin training with Laura Cozik in New York City with an all-female triathlon team this May.
The last question I asked Denise was what she would tell amputees experiencing struggles similar to her own earlier experiences. Denise paused for a moment before offering a true athlete’s response, “Never ask ‘Why me?’ Bad things happen to people all the time, you’re certainly not the first and you won’t be the last. The moment you realize you’re not alone, it changes your life. Just being able to share these feelings with people is life changing, literally every step of the way.”
You can follow this year’s CNN’s Fit Nation 2012 Tri Challenge Team here and Denise’s blog about her Tri Challenge experience here.