As a Champion Prize Fighter, Gary “Tiger” Balletto has always been a force to be reckoned with. He started boxing at a young age and after completing a successful career, Gary had set his sights on his next challenge – competing on the TV show, “American Ninja Warrior.”
But, little did he know, the future had an entirely different kind of challenge in store. As Gary was training in his backyard one summer day in 2013, he fell and endured a severe spinal cord injury.
Today, Gary “Tiger” Balletto resides in Rhode Island and is the proud dad of three beautiful children. Gary runs a successful contracting business and is the star of an upcoming cinematic documentary.
From the Ring to Wheels: Champion Boxer Gary “Tiger” Balletto Faces a Cervical Spinal Cord Injury
The strength and determination that made Gary “Tiger” Balletto a champion boxer, fierce competitor and successful contractor all came into play when he received a spinal cord injury. The doctors told him that the injury had been extensive and that several cervical vertebrae had been crushed. Still, though, Gary didn’t initially realize that the chances of a full recovery were pretty slim.
“I didn’t know this was a permanent thing. I found out shortly after [the injury] that most of the time, there is no recovery with these injuries,” Gary says.
“I still have a lot of hope that there will be in the near future.”
“But, there really isn’t anything right now that has been proven to repair SCI. I messed mine up pretty good – I broke 6 vertebras, and those nerves can’t find their way back together.”
From the time he was injured, Gary did extensive research on the best and most innovative therapies and rehab programs out there. He attended Spaulding Rehab in Boston and visited the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, as well as the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.Gary shared, “My ultimate goal was to walk again and use my hands again. I’m a quadriplegic, so I don’t have hand function, which I would take over my legs any day. That’s probably the most difficult part.”
“I make the best out of everyday. I’m in shape, my health is good. I can still do a lot.”
Aside from boxing, Gary also ran a successful contractor business prior to his injury, with which he has purchased, built and sold over 100 homes in Rhode Island. After returning home from rehab, he recalls wondering what he would do everyday. How would he fill his time? Gary decided to do what he knew best – continue working hard.
In no time, Gary was back to construction and continues to run a successful business today. He admits he has often had to be creative to get the job done, especially in the beginning, but he always figures it out.
Gary believes that keeping in shape supports our ability to lead a successful life on wheels.
Since his injury, Gary has maintained a serious training schedule to keep his body as healthy as possible. He participated in physical therapy for about a year after his SCI and when he felt like that wasn’t challenging him enough, he stepped it up.
To stay in shape, Gary “Tiger” Balletto goes to several gyms, including a boxing gym and the local YMCA. He uses a variety of methods to work his muscles, above and below his injury, including an FES bike that he rides 6 days a week for an hour at a time.
“I’m doing more with my disability than a lot of people without a disability – a lot more. And, if I can do it, I can help other people do that as well.”
Gary says it’s common, in general conversation, for a friend to find themselves complaining, only to immediately feel guilty for doing so in front of him. He tells them, though, not to feel bad. “Everyone complains. I did before my injury and still do,” he reflects.
But, the progress happens when we’re able to find that motivation and ditch the excuses, however real they may be.
Introducing the Gary “Tiger” Balletto Foundation
Since his spinal cord injury, Gary has seen continued success in his profession, maintained quality health and been an active father. And, he’s dedicated to empowering others to do the same. That’s why he created the Gary “Tiger” Balletto Foundation.“I’m just in the beginning of this foundation and plan on growing it into a large non-profit that can help others with injuries like mine that don’t have the funds to get the equipment they need,” Gary shares.
“I want to be able to bridge the financial gap with this foundation, so everyone has all the possible tools and assistance they need to do therapy to keep their bodies in shape, so they’ll live longer lives and make everyday tasks easier.”
Gary’s foundation already held its first successful fundraiser. With over 400 people in attendance, they were able to raise $25,000 in a single evening.
That money has been designated to purchase a second FES bike, priced at $24K, for the local YMCA. Gary reports that the only one that’s currently there is booked daily from morning to night – and now, there will be an additional machine so more people can experience the therapeutic benefits.
This is just the first step for the Gary “Tiger” Balletto Foundation, though. Gary’s vision is to build a fitness center with all the latest therapies and fitness programs for people with SCI, complete with trainers and physical therapists on staff – all free of charge to the clients. He plans to continue working with his local YMCA, which has been very supportive of offering more accessible fitness options to the community.
“I know I can build a place where I can support people in getting their bodies back in shape. I KNOW I can help people and I feel like I HAVE to do it.”
Gary also plans to offer employment support through his foundation. “I can work and there’s a lot of people in my position that can work, if they have the tools to do it. I want to also be able to help position people for jobs that have injuries.”
Looking Ahead for Gary “Tiger” Balletto
This is definitely not the last you’ll hear of Gary “Tiger” Balletto. In fact, a documentary about his boxing career called Tiger is in final editing now, with expected release this summer. The film, which Gary says comes across more like a movie than a traditional documentary, features over 15 years of footage from Gary’s life.
The Gary “Tiger” Balletto Foundation will continue raising funds and building support to help individuals with SCI, not just in Rhode Island, but across the U.S. If you want to learn more or donate, visit their website here and follow them on Facebook.
When he’s not running his contracting business and working on the foundation, Gary spends time with his sons and daughter – and they’ve all got a lot going on!
His youngest son, 12, enjoys wrestling. His daughter, 19, is busy working on her singing career. And his oldest son, 23, is married and following in his father’s footsteps as a Pro MMA Fighter, with a bright career ahead of him. His oldest son is also expecting a baby and Gary is beside himself to be a grandpa.
“I may be a little young to be a grandpa, I’m 42, but I couldn’t be more excited to be one. I can’t wait,” Gary adds with a proud grin.
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