What could be more grueling than competing in an Ironman triathlon? How about doubling the distance over three taxing days?! Perhaps only elite athletes would attempt such a physically demanding event… as did para-triathlete Francesco Magisano. He became the first blind athlete to finish the 321.6 multi-sport milage in the Ultraman Florida Triathlon (held February 10-12, 2023).
In case you need a crash course in triathlon metrics, the Ironman distance features a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run. The Ultraman amps it up to a multi-day double Ironman race, with a 6.2-mile swim and 92-mile bike on the first day, 172-mile bike on the second day and 52-mile run on the third day. Obviously, not many people — with or without disabilities — would even consider such a high-intensity challenge. But Magisano isn’t one to shy away from proving his capabilities to himself and others.
“I love pushing myself to the extreme because it helps me figure out what my limitations are. Then it provides me with an opportunity to explore pushing past those limitations to redefine what is possible and what I am capable of,” Magisano tells AmeriDisability. “Being totally blind, I am constantly faced with what others perceive as limitations. This is just one more way that I can advocate for athletes with disabilities and harden myself personally.”
At 10-months-old, Magisano was diagnosed retinoblastoma, an eye cancer that begins in the retina. He had low-vision for most of his childhood years until, at age 15, he went totally blind. Then, a few years later, a stranger unexpectedly changed the vision Magisano had for his life. You see, while shopping at a grocery store, he was approached by a volunteer associated with Achilles International, an global organization striving to transform the lives of people with disabilities through athletics and sports-driven social connection.
Achilles Engages People with Disabilities, Including Blind Athletes
Without prior sport experience, Magisano began attending Achilles-hosted workouts and running group sessions. He quickly found his stride as a runner, swimmer and tandem bicyclist. Endurance racing became his passion! And, eventually, his profession too. Previously working as an engineer, Magisano jumped full-speed into his dream job as the Director of the NYC Metro Region for Achilles International.
Like many, of course, finding a work-life balance is tricky. It’s no surprise that figuring out that equilibrium is extra complicated for elite athletes who maintain vigorous, time-consuming training schedules, atop of life’s many responsibilities.
“With an event this long, most of the training is super long distance and lots of volume,” Magisano shares. “Having a full-time job and not being able to train and race full-time definitely presents challenges. I view this as a benefit for my purposes because, this way, I can prove that it is still possible to achieve massive victories and break through barriers while grinding like the average person with a job, a life and family obligations.”
Magisano’s journey sounds like a whimsical film script, right? But it is his real life — and it could just as easily become the same reality (or similar on a lesser extreme scale) for anyone with a disability interested in adaptive sports.
“I’d like to be an ‘example of an athlete living with a disability’ for those who might not have ever met one and to prove that competitive and challenging athletics is part of my life in the same way that it is for someone without a disability,” Magisano says. “I also strive to be a good example for other athletes with disabilities who might be in the same position I was in the past. Growing up, I never participated in any sort of organized sports team,” Magisano explains.
In fact, he ran his first mile and swam his first lap with the Achilles workout group, all because of a life-changing grocery run. “Getting into the world of endurance sports has completely changed my life! And as the Director of the NYC Metro Region at Achilles, I work hard to bring that life-changing experience to others,” Magisano says.
Clocking a time of 33:50:14, Magisano set a record as the first blind athlete to finish Ultraman Florida. This victory comes after a slew of other marathons, triathlons and races in recent years.
Magisano asserts that, regardless of physical ability, anyone can participate in para-sports and, of course, he views Achilles International as one accessible path of pursuit. It’s important to note that Achilles athletes are not expected to become elite competitors like Magisano remarkably did. In fact, many Achilles athletes opt to participate by walking (not running or biking) and thrive on the social support. Now with 66 chapters, Achilles members report increases in well-being and self-confidence.
Aside from adaptive athletes, Achilles also engages volunteer allies and athletic support guides. Magisano is vocal about the importance of his support partners, which are vital to his safe participation, refueling plan and ultimate success. During the Ultraman, Magisano biked tandem with guide Brian Hammond and ran tethered with guide Greg Plumb, plus additional crew members were accessible via guide kayaks and a road van.
Magisano has no intention of slowing down. He has his sights set on running the Boston Marathon (again!), plus more multi-sport races like the U.S. Para-Triathlon Nationals. If you want to be inspired, follow Magisano on Instagram (@TeamFrancescoOfficial).