Brianna Salinaro aims to be first American female Paralympian in taekwondo

Taekwondo was a demonstration sport in the 2016 Paralympics and will be a fully contested Paralympic sport for the first time in 2020. Courtesy of Brianna Salinaro

If pushed, Brianna Salinaro can kick anyone in the face, but it's a tough ask. She feels like an additional 50 pounds of weight are on her leg every time a kick flies.

A 19-year-old second-degree black belt in taekwondo, Salinaro has fought all her life. The "I want to beat you" mentality has also helped her combat cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder she was diagnosed with as a toddler.

Salinaro is on pace to be the first American female Paralympian in taekwondo, which will debut as a full sport in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. (An Olympic regular since 2000, taekwondo was a demonstration sport in the 2016 Rio Paralympics.)

Salinaro ranks third worldwide in her weight class, won sparring gold at the 2016 U.S. Open, then repeated in 2017.

Salinaro trains hard, squaring off mainly against opponents without disabilities, and jokes of a long losing streak against them. The opportunity to represent the U.S. in the Paralympics with a set of rules attuned to para-athletes was too tempting to pass.

"That alone was so exciting, and then to find out that you could go the Olympics -- in 2016 I didn't know what to think, but I'm thrilled for 2020," Salinaro says.

Ironically, taekwondo is probably the most challenging sport Salinaro could have chosen as a kid. It's a kick-heavy martial art, and as a toddler, she was diagnosed with a form of cerebral palsy that affects her back and leg movement. She had surgery at a young age to cut portions of her left and right Achilles tendon, which helped alleviate some of the muscle tension in her legs, giving her the ability to move better. But even so, she struggled to walk as a kid and wore leg braces until she was about 5 years old.

Her quality of life has improved now and she walks more comfortably, but those school days were different.

"As I got older and people realized I ran and walked weird, then it was like, 'You walk like a duck,' and it tore me apart," she says. "Now that I look back, it was so stupid."

Though difficult, Salinaro's mother, Donielle Gallucci, decided to raise Salinaro like any other kid, especially when it came to participating in sports and extracurricular activities. "I did not want to give her the ability to blame the things she couldn't do on her disability," Gallucci says.

Before starting taekwondo at age 5, Salinaro tried many sports in her hometown of Massapequa, New York. She has come so far in her chosen sport because of her diligence in stretching and hard work, says Dr. Cathleen Raggio, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery, where Salinaro was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and had surgery. Salinaro undergoes ongoing treatments, as well as lengthy workouts with long-time coach Frank Guerrini.

There's cupping, heat and stimulation and other treatment to release tension on the back and to increase blood flow to different parts of the body. Taekwondo workouts can be intense, but add cerebral palsy, and it gets tougher.

"A lot of pain, back pain, soreness, but you get used to it. If I'm not in pain, or not sore, I'm like, 'Why? Am I not working hard enough? What's going on?'" Salinaro says.

Today, Salinaro is confident in handling the disability, and there's no self-pity or doubt. She's in her prime, but also realizes there's a track record of the condition worsening with age. She's also acutely aware of her strong and weak points, which manifests in competition.

"I am fighting amputees or people that have limb deficiency in the upper parts of their body. I fight to where I can score at their weakest point," Salinaro says.

One of her top opponents is Lisa Gjessing of Denmark, currently ranked at the top of Salinaro's weight division. Gjessing lost an arm to cancer and has built a reputation on booming kicks. Salinaro has to block those kicks but also plan an offense.

"I don't have able-bodied legs, so it's going to be difficult for me to even reach their weakest points," Salinaro says.

Salinaro looks up to stars like Amy Truesdale, a Great Britain para-athlete who is reaching legendary status after winning a string of tournaments in a higher weight class. Awareness of para-taekwondo is also spreading, and Salinaro expects more competition from Americans in a bid to join the 2020 Paralympic team. But for now, she hopes to dominate the field for many years to come.

"The 2028 Olympics will be in Los Angeles. For me, the ultimate dream is to fight and represent USA in my country. It can't get better," she says.

Agam Shah is a writer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at @agamsh.