“What I did in the military made me strong enough to do what I’m doing today,” U.S. Army veteran John Tuzzolino said.
Tuzzolino, 39, of Ahwatukee Foothills, was paralyzed while assigned to a Ranger training battalion in 1991. After two years of service and almost two decades later, he is participating in weightlifting competitions across the country.
About a semester after graduating from high school, Tuzzolino decided to join the U.S. Army in 1989, where he completed Airborne School and Ranger School.
“That was what I wanted to do when I was younger, so that’s what I did,” he said.
Tuzzolino suffered a spinal cord injury in a vehicle accident while he was serving in a two-month training battalion.
“I got hurt before I got to put the school to work,” he said.
Tuzzolino was encouraged to join the Paralyzed Veterans of America after the accident, which he did in 1992, however, he still struggled to find a positive outlet at first.
“When something that drastic happens in your life, I’d say you’re not that positive,” he said.
After talking with friends and other veterans, Tuzzolino started bench pressing and playing basketball and other sports.
“It’s stuff that I liked before, so it was like a positive drive,” Tuzzolino said, adding that he enjoyed lifting weights in high school.
He started competing in competitive weightlifting events around four years after the accident and participated in his first National Veterans Wheelchair Games in 1994.
“I’m just seeing if I can do more,” Tuzzolino said. “I just think it’s fun.”
With his involvement in sports and the organization, Paralyzed Veterans of America asked him to be the sports director for the Arizona chapter in 2001, Tuzzolino said.
As the statewide sports director, Tuzzolino speaks with newly-injured veterans about their future athletic possibilities and recruits athletes for the National Games.
“It changes the way they look at things, because they realize that there is life after you get hurt,” he said.
Tuzzolino recruits around 20 athletes each year from across the state to participate in the National Games, where nearly 600 athletes participate, he said.
Tuzzolino said he has participated in about 11 National Games and picked up a few gold medals along the way, including his gold medal for the Open Division of Weightlifting by Bodyweight at the 2009 competition.
Four-year-old daughter, Meghan, and wife, Karla, enjoy going to the National Games, which are at a different part of the country every year, Tuzzolino said, especially Meghan, he added.
“She thinks it’s fun,” he said. “Her first one was in Alaska. It’s fun for her to go because she knows different people there.”
Tuzzolino now competes in three to four competitions each year, including the Natural Athlete Strength Association 2009 Arizona Regional Competition that he participated in on Saturday with his wife and daughter supporting him.
“He tries to make an example of himself,” Karla said. “Now that you’re in a chair, it doesn’t mean that you can’t do things.”
He came in first place in the open division with a bench press lift of 320 pounds, he said, making this the second year in a row that he has taken home gold from this event.
Tuzzolino was the only disabled lifter at the competition.
“To me that would be pretty intimidating,” Karla said. “It takes a lot to take a step outside of your comfort zone and do something like this. We’re pretty proud of him.”
Karla said she enjoys watching her husband compete because it’s something that is very important to him.
“Obviously there are a lot of unseen challenges, but John definitely has the attitude that this is his second chance at life,” she said.
Despite his injury from serving in the Army, Tuzzolino said he has no regrets of the time he spent in the military.
“If I didn’t get hurt, I might have died doing something else,” he said.
Tuzzolino is being honored for his many accomplishments and years of service by being appointed as a Gold Medal Grand Marshal for the Veteran’s Association Veterans Day Parade on Wednesday, Nov. 11.
“It’s an honor to be a leader of a group,” Tuzzolino said. “Plus, it’s an honor to be a representative and be there to celebrate all the veterans before and after.”
Stephanie Snyder is interning this semester for the Ahwatukee Foothills News. She is a sophomore at Arizona State University.