Daniele Cassioli: A Champion Who Glides over Difficulties

The story of a champion in sports, and in life
Silvia Colombini

With the last gold medal he won this summer at the European Water Skiing Championships for the Disabled, champion Daniele Cassioli has won the most in his discipline. Seventeen gold medals in the European games, 16 in the World Games, undefeated in Italy, Daniele is today a symbol for all those who struggle every day against the difficulties that a disability may cause. Blind since birth due to retinitis pigmentosa, he has always managed to lead a normal life. With a degree in physiotherapy and a passion for sports activities that he has enjoyed since childhood, Daniel is now a 30-year-old man who works at the Medical Group Castellanza, a multi-specialist centre. He is already training for his new challenge at the next world championships which will be held in Australia in 2017.

Your blindness has not prevented you from leading a normal life and achieve great results in every aspect. Where did you find the necessary strength and energy?

My situation was likely to represent an important obstacle for my personal fulfilment from the professional, sports and, above all, human perspectives. This is because sometimes those who cannot see think they cannot do the normal things people do. In this sense, the first obstacles come from the outside world: difficulties in finding a university where you truly feel welcomed, in dispelling the misconceptions about people living with vision loss, and so on. Blindness is often more of a problem for others than for me. Initially, all my strength depended on the constant love of my family. This gave me awareness and confidence in what I am rather than being afraid of what I don't have. After that, it is easier to accept and harness positive energy and personal strength.

Daniele Cassioli

Coubertin said, "The sport fetches the fear to dominate, the fatigue to triumph over it, the difficulty to overcome her." What does it mean to you to express yourself with your body?

Coubertin was not a fool! Joking aside, sport has such great importance in my life that it's hard to define it. When I was younger it meant I needed to compensate, children at school with me did everything by imitating others. For those who cannot see, this is impossible, so you're obligated to look for experiences using motor skills. So, what I could do at school during physical education classes was returned with accrued interest when I was wearing skis of any kind. Growing up, the significance of playing sports has taken even more importance. The most important thing was to allow others (or request, if you prefer) to look at you in a different light, with admiration rather than pity.

Swimming, karate, snow skiing: you have been practising so many disciplines. How did you come to water skiing?

Water has always been my element, so that was my starting point. In water you can't fall or bump into an obstacle, so I felt safe. After a few years, I was ready to try a less secure environment, that's how I began doing karate. Then, in 1994, I met the visionary Verbanese Blind Skiers Group, active since 1982, they bring blind people cross-country and downhill skiing. This group (with which I still ski) has been to me a true training ground for life. The act of gliding appealed to me so much, here I am on the water.

Have you faced difficulties in the sporting world?

Absolutely, yes. People have biases about a plate of pasta, never mind a person who doesn't see. As soon as the waiter puts a plate in front of you, you think you can tell by the smell or what it looks like what it will taste in your mouth. It was the same thing for me: this guy doesn't see so he can do this, but he can't do that. This is determined right from the beginning. That's right up my alley! I'm not only talking from a sporting perspective but also about so many situations in my life, even today.

Are persons with disabilities at the professional level valued in the same manner as non-disabled sportspersons?

Well, I can say that it isn’t so. However, we are making huge steps towards a better future, and Italy is far ahead of other countries. Events such as the Paralympics, for example, represent a wonderful catalyst. More needs to be done, however, because athletes themselves, once they get off the plane and return home, they have to fight to find training facilities, training specialists and some sponsorship. Not all that glitters is gold, but we are growing. Just think of where persons with disabilities were 60 years ago, and what the Paralympics are today, including institutions.

What are the achievements of the Waterski Federation?

The most important goal is having been able to create a federal centre for everyone, and I mean really everyone! Every day I train with younger and older people, professionals and friends. This was the first seed to create an environment where there are no architectural barriers and, above all, no cultural obstacles, and that's priceless.

What does gliding over the water mean?

It means so much, it's a continuous challenge with myself and absolute fun to fight every day. Water skiing has three disciplines: slalom, figures and jumps. Slalom requires an obsessive attention to technical details, and jumps create pure adrenaline fuelled by those twenty metres in the air, alone, free!

What does sport give you?

It has allowed me to define my personality. And it has given me the ability to make sacrifices, and face the fears and love necessary to nurture my passion. And, it gives me opportunities to travel, to speak foreign languages, to learn about other cultures and disabilities. Finally, the interest resulting from a success allows me to talk about issues relating to blindness and integration. I speak in schools, in various conferences, and I show so many blind children how to ski, but mostly I bring awareness to their families about the fact that even if you don't see, you can truly exist, you can live!

You have won everything, what would you like now?

My dream would be to participate in the Olympics or Paralympics.

Daniele Cassioli

Is there still something from which you feel excluded?

My condition is certainly a limit, there is not much to say about that. But then, how one relates to a limitation depends on us. We can act upon what seems to be an obstacle and make it a motivation. The practical thing I miss most is not being able to drive in the city. We'll get there eventually, though, since there already are self-driving cars!

Do you have any advice for people who are growing up with a disability like yours?

I think the first step is not to walk away from our responsibility for the pursuit of happiness. The fact of not seeing does not give us any permission to let ourselves feel knocked down and defeated. There are people who have their five senses and who feel sadder or more frustrated than others who don't see or hear or walk. Never have fears or negative beliefs that others pin on us. Rectors of some universities were convinced it was impossible for me to obtain my bachelor's degree in physiotherapy but I proved them wrong. Then we must focus on autonomy, true relationships and motor skills. You must not allow blindness to swallow you up, you must be aware of and manage your own body in recreational or sporting activities.

What are your next milestones?

In the short term, there is a world championship in which I will participate as the reigning champion. Then, I want to grow from the professional point of view in the treatment of high-level sportspersons, and I dream of taking advantage of this growth by teaching those who can't see. Physiotherapy is one of the fields in which we can assert ourselves. We must be resilient and well prepared in order to be competitive and successful even in the employment world. To be able to put my skills at the service of people who are in my situation is something I am deeply committed to.


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