Tony Spineto’s body pulsated with pain. He only had 100 more yards to go in the final stretch of the Ironman Arizona competition, but it felt like 100 miles. He gave it everything he had because after five months of training, there was no way he could come up short.
“As I turned into the finisher’s chute,” he recalls, “I was greeted with a large cheering crowd and bright blinding lights… I reached deep down inside myself and disregarded all pains and fears.”
Racing his final steps, he stretched his arms out, reaching for volunteers to catch his weakened body. He had done it, despite earlier claims from doctors that he would be in a wheelchair by the time he was 20, hobbled by bilateral clubfoot and arthritis.
‘I’m an Ironman!’ Spineto thought, but his next thought was of his feet, which ached horribly.
At birth, his feet looked as if they’d been rotated inwardly at the ankle. Without treatment, a person with clubfoot may appear to walk on his ankles or the sides of his feet, but Spineto underwent surgery in 1975 for a cosmetic correction of his condition, which occurs in one out of every 1,000 children born. Though surgery improved his feet and ankles’ appearance, physicians advised him to limit his physical activity.
“My doctors told me not to run,” suggesting it would cause more harm than good, he recalls. “So I led a really unhealthy lifestyle for many years.”
When his daughter was born, his wife, Erin, a sailor and triathlete herself, challenged her husband to run to lose weight. At the time, he was around 260 pounds. So he started jogging in 2006, ultimately dropping about 100 pounds.
Once it was established that he could run, his wife challenged Spineto to tackle a sprint triathlon, which starts off with a quarter-mile swim, moves on to a nine-mile bike segment and concludes with a two-mile run. Spineto took the challenge on and bested it late last year.
But it wasn’t until the couple’s son, Eli, was conceived that Spineto fully dedicated himself to an active lifestyle. During the pregnancy, he and Erin went to weekly sonograms because she is a type-1 diabetic. During a routine visit, the doctor showed the couple their baby’s heart, lungs and, well, boy parts on the screen.
“We asked if he could check out the feet, and the doctor was like, ‘Uh, okay.’ We looked at the feet and then at each other, and knew right away,” Spineto recalls. “The doctor had this blank look on his face; [he got] very quiet. He wrapped up everything and said, ‘When you’re all cleaned up, come into my office and we’ll have a discussion.’ We knew what it was going to be about.”
The image showed that the couple’s unborn son had bilateral clubfoot, just like his father.
Spineto said the doctor redirected the conversation toward “options.”
“We were like, what do you mean options?” Spineto said. “He said, ‘You have the option of having an abortion.’ We looked at each other, and man, it was hard.”
The difficulty of comprehending what the doctor had just told them wasn’t about a political ideology. It wasn’t about the medical diagnosis of their future as parents.
“When the doctor asked us that question, it hit me that the world doesn’t see my son as worthy of living because he has some limitations. Just because a person has a disability doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve life,” Spineto says. “At that moment, my racing took on a different cause. My son is why I race.”
Spineto left the doctor’s office on a mission. He knew the difficulties that he had faced with clubfoot were being overcome through physical activity. That day, he decided to take on more triathlons in order to educate as many people as possible about clubfoot and its possibilities, not its imperfections.
“I wanted to begin to raise awareness… and I wanted to do something to set an example for Eli,” Spineto says.
He began competing in Olympic-distance triathlons, which are twice as long as sprint triathlons. Then he moved up to half-Ironman competitions. Then, last November, he crossed the last threshold: becoming an Ironman.
As he began to lose weight, he overhauled his diet, and now follows a vegan regimen. He begins training for triathlons six months in advance, spending 20-30 hours a week performing two workouts a day, including a run, bike and swim. And every step he takes is riddled with difficulty.
“Over the years of racing, I’ve accepted that it’s going to be painful and a challenge,” he says. “It’s something you deal with while you’re out on the course. It’s expected. I don’t know how I do it, but I have the drive to do it. I have a purpose. When you have a drive and a purpose, they override your weaker moments.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been in pain. All I know is chronic pain. When you’re out on the course, it’s more intense because you’re pushing your body to the limit. It’s something I accept.”
The ironic thing about Spineto performing through the pain is that his bike and swim times are equivalent with those of top triathletes. His run times, however, are very poor. He’s accepted that, and knows he’s not competing to win gold medals, but to win acceptance for others with his condition.
He takes no medication—even when he competes despite the fact that his feet, legs, hips and back all hurt. He participates in 11 races per season, and aims to throw his name in the hat for the USA Paratriathlon National Championship Event, as well as the world championship in London this September.
His sponsorships outfit him with clothing and nutrition; they also cover entry fees for larger competitions, which offers him a bigger platform from which to share his story. Though his backers know that he’s not likely to win events, they have partnered with him because they believe in his cause.
After he’d tried countless brand name athletic shoes to alleviate pain during his training, he began reaching out to shoe companies that specialized in triathlons, and an email to Hoka One One landed at just the right moment:
Spineto told them about his mission and asked to try out the company’s product. One of the owners responded because his friend had just had a baby born with clubfoot. Hoka One One sent Spineto 10 pairs of running shoes, and soon after signed a deal to sponsor him.
“It’s not really about the weight or living a healthy lifestyle right now,” he says. “It’s about racing for my son and raising awareness for kids with clubfoot. When my son was born, they gave my wife and me little hope about his physical outcome. So far he’s completed three triathlons at age 7.” Kids’ triathlon events go in reverse order, with a half-mile run, 2-mile bike and 25-yard swim.
Spineto’s message is to “get up and get moving.” Parents contact him all the time through his blog or Facebook page, praising him for the example he sets.
The athlete also works with the nonprofit organization MiracleFeet, which treats a million children with clubfoot worldwide, so they can run, play and attend school like everybody else. He helps train the company’s doctors, who have worked with children in East Africa and Mexico, correcting the condition through a nonsurgical procedure, called the Ponseti method, which helped Spineto’s son.
The method involves manipulating the ligaments, joint capsules and tendons, and then using a plaster cast after each manipulation to lock the degree of correction, and soften the ligaments. The process takes a couple of months.
“The nice thing about the Ponseti method is that it’s cheaper than surgery and the outcomes are better,” Spineto said.
Using his own personal experiences,
by Josh Pate
Articles in the Amy Brenneman Issue; Geri Jewell — Spring Into Action; Ashley Fiolek — Making the Move; Humor — A Tail of Two Kitties: CSUN — This is Your Future: Long Haul Paul — Riding the MS Trail: Tony Spineto — You Say Club Foot, I Say Marathon: DRLC — Federal Wellness Programs: Kendall Hollinger — Allergies on Ice: Charles Limb, MD — Jazzology & Your Brain: China — A Family’s Story of Strength: Scotty Enyart — PhD the Hard Way: Amy Brenneman — Chiming In: HE Fahed Bin Al Shaikh — Autism in the UAE: Caroline McGraw — Finding the Gifts in Everyonet; ABILITY’s Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences…