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A Leg to Stand On

One leg? Two skates?
No problem – for Casey Pieretti

Published circa 1994 ¶
Updated here 2002.02.06

Don’t believe the hype: Disabled athletes are not always “inspiring” or “courageous.” Sometimes they’re just heeding a call – a call that differs only in tenor, not in kind, from that which beckons nondisabled jocks. Being disabled can be a drag sometimes, but it can also act as a catalyst. Case(y) in point: Casey Pieretti, amputee skater.

Zoom back to November 3,1985. Pieretti – all of 19 at the time and studying at Nevada’s Wassuck College under a basketball scholarship – was designated driver of a carload of inebriated friends. While rounding a corner, the car’s battery fell off its mount and fricaseed the cables, forcing Pieretti to get out and push at the rear of the car. Eight miles later, on the shoulder of the road, under a streetlamp, while wearing light-coloured clothes, Pieretti got hit by drunk driver. It wasn’t just an accident, he says, it was “a wreck, because drinking and driving is never an accident. It’s a wreck.” The impact crushed his right leg paper-thin and would have done the same to his left if that leg hadn’t been adjacent to a bumper guard; that leg was only partly crushed. With Pieretti jammed between them, the two cars kept moving for about 60 yards, whereupon the cars disengaged and Pieretti hit the ground. Ironically, his car “coasted right in front of the garage door that we were going to push it to and stopped at an angle,” he remembers. “Even though I fell down on the job, I still got the job done.”

By a stroke of luck, an emergency medical technician happened to drive by soon after the accident. Good thing, too: Having severed arteries in both legs, Pieretti would have exsanguinated before an ambulance could have reached him. Recovery, oddly enough, didn’t hurt much: “I had lots of nerve damage, so I wasn’t in much pain at that time.” Pieretti credits U.S. ski team doctor Michael Chapman for saving his right knee (i.e., amputating below it), something that would come in handy later on.

From day zero, he says, he had “a very positive outlook about what I could do about having one leg and a prosthetic leg.” In contrast, it was “a several-year process” of coping with the deaths of his father Eugene and brother Matthew, who died in 1985 after being hit by another drunk driver. “I never even thought about it as ‘Poor me who’s lost my scholarship and my leg,’‘‘ Pieretti says.

In the hospital, “they thought that I was in denial, that I was thinking like a person who had two legs all their lives and not like a person who now had one leg, whereas I was thinking like a person who now had one leg and I was thinking that these are the things I intended to do and I did. Even when I was in hospital, I was deciding to be a triathlete, which is what I did after I got out of the hospital.” Once a jock, always a jock.

The triathlete phase, however, did not last long. After he broke a foot in a 1988 triathlon, Pieretti ended up hobbling around on braces. He found an old-style rollerskate (which just happened to be for the left foot) and before long was pushing himself around on it using his braces. After a couple of months of perambulating this way, Pieretti concluded he’d “much rather skate than run.” Fate would later intervene when he met Joel Bott at a charity skating event. A strapping 6-foot-4 fellow who had skated on inlines since their inception in 1981, Bott had the crazy idea to skate across the country; Pieretti had the same idea. Bingo. Pieretti’s goal for the marathon journey would be to raise awareness of, and funds for, a limb bank for amputee kids, who could use reconditioned prostheses other kids had outgrown.

It took two years of shopping proposals around before Bott, Pieretti, and Airrick Akiskalian (described by InLine magazine as “support dude and all-around ladies’ man”) scraped together enough cash to launch the Blade Across America tour in April 1993. “We never got a real sponsor as far as I’m concered,” he says, though Rollerblade donated skates, a few sponsors here and there kicked in some cash, and prosthesis maker RGP anted up $7,000, a motorhome, an all-important gasoline credit card, “and all the artificial legs I could use.” As it turned out, a single leg lasted the whole race, but Pieretti cannibalized parts from two different feet along the way and ate through seven stump sockets. That was nothing, though, compared to the 400 skate wheels that gave their lives for the tour.

Pieretti and company put 30 to 40 miles a day behind them for most the 87 days they were on the road. The guys would talk “for maybe 30 seconds in the morning”; the rest was skate, skate, skate. And putting on shows: Even as a kid, Pieretti liked to launch his bike in the air, performing Evel Knievel-esque jumps over washing machines. Dr. Chapman’s surgical skill left Pieretti with enough surfaces on his stump to take the weight of crashing to earth from midair, and with wheels now on his feet, he’d jump over anything: Reporters, cars, burger-joint slaves. His leg came off only once in a show, while jumping over a Cadillac at a Richmond, Virginia V.A. hospital. The crowd “didn’t even budge. These guys had all been in wars and it was, like, no big deal.”

The tour wasn’t exactly a money machine. When Rick Hansen, a Canadian paraplegic, wheeled around the world in 1985 and 1986, he arrived home in Vancouver with a $32 million legacy for spinal-cord research, education, and rehabilitation. Pieretti et al. ended up with “a few thousand,” plus donations of a few arms and legs. All’s well that ends well, though: Though Pieretti had no direct role in setting it up, the National Prosthetic Limb Bank for Children has been up and running since 1993 (800-493-5462).

These days Pieretti, who calls Santa Barbara home, gets by doing stunt shows and acting in the occasional commercial – in a spot for the Plastics Industries Council, Pieretti plays an amputee learning to walk unaided on a whiz-band plastic prosthesis, a spectacle comparable to Helen Keller acting in a commercial for the water-pump industry. He also stress-tests new prosthetic limbs (“Anything that lasts on me for a month wil last on someone else for a year”), giving him access to cutting-edge prosthetic technology for free.

The message clean-living Pieretti delivers in his shows is the havoc drinking and driving can wreak. “The saying for the whole tour was that there are no disabled people, there’s only people with different abilities,” Pieretti says, using remarkably March of Dimes-like lingo. “There’s really not anything you can’t be. Maybe you can’t be exactly it, but you can be damn close if you put in the time and effort.”

Pieretti is aware of his status as a Supercrip, a designation that isn’t quite as flattering as it may seem. Critics point out that focusing on the herculean achievements of a few very fit disabled people obscures the day-to-day needs of the disabled majority – a barrier-free environment, and end to job discrimination, and, at the most fundamental level, simply being thought of as human beings. “I’ve had my share of being discriminated against, most definitely,” Pieretti says. He acknowledges that even an above-the-knee amputee might not be able to do what he can. “I’m not out there making decisions for other people, I don’t think.”

In an age where the personal is – ahem – political, Pieretti’s greatest contribution to disability awareness may be his willingness to walk around wearing shorts, showing off what he calls his Terminator leg. “I’ve been known to paint my leg fluorescent green and silver before,” he says. It’s not as grand an action as skating across the country, but it makes people notice you. Then, after you walk on by, they’re not so surprised the next time.

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