Fifteen years ago, he went on a paddling excursion down the Youghiogheny River. Upon his return to shore, he bought his own watercraft, became a certified instructor with the American Canoe Association (ACA) and started volunteering his expertise to local landlubbers.
While overseeing kayaking demonstrations at a Chicago boat show, Gioia met a boy with a below-elbow amputation who shared his enthusiasm for the sport.
“I was a bit in shock,” Gioia admits. “I didn’t know the words to use or even how to approach the situation as an ‘able-bodied’ paddler. I was curious and interested in how he does what he does. I talked to his dad, we became Facebook friends and I soon learned that there is this big, wide world of adaptive sports.”
The 35-year-old Shadyside resident immersed himself in adaptive sports , which includes activities such as hand cycling, wheelchair basketball, and sled hockey. But no one, it seemed, was getting their feet wet.
Recognizing a need in the community, Gioia, a technology consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers, got another ACA certification in adaptive paddling and launched Dynamic Paddlers. Gioia, one of 13 ACA-certified Adaptive Instructor Trainers in the world. The organization helps people of all ages and abilities develop independence, confidence and personal fitness through kayaking. Unlike canoeing, where people use a single-blade oar to propel themselves through the water, kayaking’s tool is a double-blade paddle.
Gioia adjusts each private lesson to an individual client’s needs, all they have to do is show up with a smile on their face.
Jackson MacTaggart, a 17-year-old from Washington, PA, was an extremely athletic kid before a swimming accident left him a quadriplegic. “We were looking for anything my son could do that would help him feel more active and get him out of his wheelchair,” says his mother, Rebecca MacTaggart. Gioia adjusted the equipment based on Jackson’s height and weight – 6-foot-3-inches, 140 pounds – and strengths and weaknesses and the pair set out across North Park Lake. “Larry really made Jackson feel confident, which made me feel confident,” Rebecca says. “He does his homework. He’s not flying by the seat of his pants. He knows his clients and he tries to gets to know their injury level and their abilities and disabilities with the knowledge that things may need to be adapted here or there. I believe in adaptive sports. It’s important to know that life goes on and there are still really interesting things you can do.”
Ellen Clancy of Greenfield was looking for an outdoor activity that would engage the whole family, including her 24-year-old son, Brendan, who is autistic with an intellectual disability. They met with Gioia with the expectation that he would paddle and Brendan would just go along for the ride. After a few lessons in a tandem kayak, Brendan was paddling on his own. His triumph on the water boosted his confidence level. Now he isn’t afraid to ride the zipline at summer camp or brave a Kennywood roller coaster. “It’s been a wonderful family experience for us,” Clancy says. “Being out on the water is special.”
Fox Chapel resident Dan McCoy, 24, who was born with spina bifida, already has a gold medal in sled hockey from the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Now he has his sights set on winning more hardware at 2020’s Tokyo-based competition. Gioia, one of 13 ACA-certified instructors in the world, is his paracanoeing coach. “I used to compete in adaptive rowing, but I’ve always been interested in kayaking. You can go a lot faster,” McCoy says. “The muscles used are very similar to the ones you use in sled hockey.” McCoy and Gioia hit the water every weekend in preparation for the Paralympics. They’ll be training hard, but, to onlookers at North Park Lake, they’ll just seem like two friends having fun.
“That’s the beauty of this sport. Who has a disability? On the water you can’t tell,” Gioia says. “Water is the ultimate equalizer. It levels the playing field.”