Rower Gianluca Gabriele loves the moments past the finish line when he looks at his teammates and savors their cohesion and spirit.
“The thing that sets you apart is how you worked together,” he said. “There’s that gratification of, after a race, looking back and forward at everybody and knowing you raced.”
Gabriele, 17, is an incoming freshman who plans to major in biomedical engineering at Wichita State University. Rowing is his passion, and he will spend the summer under consideration for both the 2024 summer Paralympic and Olympic training teams for the United States.
When he returns to Wichita State later this summer, he will join the Shockers crew team.
“I have definitely just fallen in love with it,” he said.
Gabriele spent three months in the fall of 2020 paralyzed on the right side of his body and using a wheelchair. He gradually recovered mobility, although his right leg remains affected by what doctors diagnosed as functional neurologic disorder. In early June, he competed in time trials on a rowing machine at the Steve Clark YMCA while on campus for the Summer Research Institute.
“Going back to rowing was something I was really looking forward to,” he said. “I still can’t feel my right leg. Handling rowing through that, I started looking at the Paralympics. It was not what I expected – it’s a lot harder than normal rowing. So, I got really interested and I decided I might as well reach out to see if I can get into that area (of performance) that I would need to be in to go to the Paralympics.”
Gabriele, from Dayton, Ohio, competes for Dayton Boat Club, which rows on the Great Miami River. He started as a sophomore after two friends in his high school Latin class invited him to try rowing.
The sport gave him a low-impact exercise during his recovery from the paralysis. He started with a reduced workload in 2021 and, as his fitness improved and he received medical clearance, returned to a full practice schedule this spring.
“He’s a heck of a hard worker,” said Gina Lucia, novice head coach at Dayton Boat Club. “That’s kind of unbelievable that he could go from completely bed-ridden to racing a competitive racer in the finals of our championships in less than a year.”
The Paralympics caught him by surprise when the organization emailed asking him to complete time trials. He went from the Summer Research Institute at Heskett Center to the nearby YMCA to row.
“It was a little bit unconventional,” he said. “I was not confident at all. I think with all the spontaneousness of 2020 and 2021 – paralysis, on and off, all of that – it’s ‘I’ll try my best. This is opportunity I’ve been given. I’ll work my butt off and get there.’”
He completed six time trials – four of two kilometers and two sprint trials of 500 meters at the YMCA. He sent documenting video and pictures and received word later that day that he met the Paralympics standard.
The process of time trials and competition continues through the summer.
“As you get closer and more people apply, if someone beats you, you shift down,” he said. “In order to ensure your spot, you pretty much need a (personal record).”
His times also make him a candidate for the Olympic training team, he said. Gabriele expects to complete more time trials this summer as more candidates enter the pool for both teams (he cannot row for both in 2024). He will also row for his club.
“I have their rowing machine workouts that I am going to be doing and I still have my summer season,” he said. “I’ll be splitting my workout time between Dayton Boat Club and U.S. Rowing’s Olympic training team.”