Breaking Boundaries as an Amputee Athlete: The Denise Castelli Story
By David Borghard
The road of an athlete is unequivocally paved with uncertainties and meandering plot-twists.
No one is more familiar with this than Denise Castelli, a 30 year-old Netcong, New Jersey native and ex-NCAA softball standout from the University of New Haven. Back in April of 2008, as a senior in college, Castelli broke her leg on a routine slide to second base during an NCAA softball game. Indicative of the type of fighter Castelli is, she crawled to second base with a broken leg to avoid getting tagged out. While Castelli knew that her collegiate career was over, no one could prepare her for the series of events that would follow her injury.
“I was concerned about not being able to walk at graduation,” said Castelli of the day she broke her leg. “I knew there was something wrong with my leg, I knew that it was broken, but I just wasn’t ready for what happened next.”
In order to repair her broken leg and ultimately aid the healing process, surgeons implanted a metal rod in Castelli’s leg. Unbeknownst to her, that small piece of metal would ultimately give Castelli an insidious infection. By July, her leg failed to heal properly, her toes turned black and she constantly ran a fever. When she suddenly fainted one day, Castelli knew something was awry.
“It snowballed out of control really quickly,” said Castelli. “I knew things weren’t getting better, but I didn’t think I would lose my leg.”
After receiving over 30 surgeries and spending 18 nonconsecutive months in the hospital as doctors attempted to stave off the deadly infection, Castelli received grim news — she would need an amputation. On that fateful day, November 4, 2009, Castelli had her right leg surgically amputated below the knee. That night, however, she wanted to put off facing reality for just one more day.
“The [New York] Yankees were playing in game seven of the World Series against the [Philadelphia] Phillies. That was the only thing on my mind. I just want to watch this game and feel normal,” Castelli said. “But the next day after, reality set in. It was pretty tough. I was scared to even pull the covers up and look. It couldn’t believe it was happening to me.”
Determined to let nothing, not even the loss of a limb, get in her way, Castelli sought to begin her new life as an athlete amputee. But before she could run, she needed to learn how to walk. Literally.
“I was excited, and pretty naïve at first,” Castelli said about getting her prosthetic limb. “I had to set mini goals for myself in physical therapy and then once I broke those I would set new goals. Toward the end, my goal was living as normal a life as possible.”
Castelli spent months in physical therapy adjusting to life with a prosthetic limb. She labored through the arduous process of learning how to walk, and aspired to once again run. In June of 2010, just months after her amputation, Castelli participated in a running and mobility clinic in New York City for athlete amputees. She was off and running on her first try.
“I had no courage to even try [to run],” said Castelli. “I think what scared me was that if I tried to run and I failed, it would be a pretty devastating blow to me. But at the clinic, I just took off and ran, and it felt so good. I didn’t even know I had it in me.”
The Challenged Athletes Foundation, which holds the clinic in New York City every year, teaches athlete amputees like Castelli proper running form and technique through a series of drills and exercise. Accompanied by medical professionals and world champion parathletes, Castelli was able to re-launch her athletic career.
By 2011, Castelli was already serving as a ball girl for the U.S. Open — beating out around 500 able-bodied men and women for the coveted position. She was the first amputee to ever work as a ball girl at the U.S. Open, and quickly became a favorite with the professional tennis players. Denise was asked to work Arthur Ashe Stadium, the largest tennis-specific stadium in the world and home of the U.S. Open Tennis Championships.
“To be on the biggest stage of tennis and out on the court, the players are really putting their trust in you because you need to be invisible as a ball person,” she said.
The following year, in 2012, Denise was one of seven individuals to be selected to participate in CNN’s Fit Nation Triathlon Challenge. Again, Castelli beat out hundreds of people for the opportunity to join Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s group.
For seven months, Castelli trained for seven hours a week for the Nautica Malibu Triathlon in Malibu, California. The process was yet another hurdle for Castelli to overcome.
“Not only was I learning how to swim, I was learning how to swim with one leg,” she exclaimed.
Castelli’s journey has come full circle since she first ran with her newly prosthetic leg at the Challenged Athletes Foundation’s clinic back in 2010. On June 6, 2015, Castelli was back at the CAF clinic in New York City. However, this time, she’s leading the clinics instead of participating in them.
“I’ve been to every New York City clinic, and the last 2 years I’ve been there as an ambassador teaching, helping and getting people comfortable in their prosthetic limbs,” she said. “It’s my way of giving back.”
Joining Castelli as an ambassador at the New York City clinic was Chris Provenzano, a New York native and fellow amputee athlete. Provenzano, 25, was a former collegiate baseball player before he sustained significant damage to the tendons, ligaments and muscles in his left foot due to an aggressive autoimmune disease. Since his amputation, though, Provenzano has resumed a fully active lifestyle that includes running, weightlifting, swimming and yoga.
At the clinic, Provenzano helped amputees of all ages improve their speed, balance and strength. Both Castelli and Provenzano have fully embraced their new lives, and are determined to help others in similar situations.
“I enjoy being able to tell my story and recognize some of the same doubts in recent amputees that I had during my first couple months on a prosthetic,” said Provenzano about the clinic. “I hope that the recent amputees I talk with are more optimistic and confident in what they can achieve when they go home from the clinic than when they arrived.”
Matt Graham, a three-time CAF clinic attendee and seasoned veteran of the program, was eager to learn from the likes of Castelli and Provenzano. While Graham competes in triathlons and is well adjusted to his prosthetic limb, he still attends the clinics to work on his technique.
“To be able to pick up tips from someone like Denise is what drew me to the event,” said Graham. “Learning to pace myself and when and how to utilize certain skills was my major goal.”
At only 30 years old, Denise Castelli still has a long future ahead of her. For now, though, she’s still taking it one day at a time.
“It’s hard for me to look too far into the future because my life changed so quickly,” she said. “I can’t set long-term goals for myself, but I just hope to keep doing what I’m doing — wake up everyday and feel comfortable in my own skin.”