Written by Andrew Capitelli (SJC-LI Sports Information)
Four years ago, Lorraine Diehl arrived at Sachem Swim Club for another day of instructing. At that point she was a sophomore in high school, and after seven years of swimming with the club the Ronkonkoma native assumed instructor duties. And although she always dreamed of being a school teacher, Diehl would find something in swim instructing that she would never have imagined.
Johnny Giannotti arrived at Sachem Swim Club having never stepped foot in a pool. At just seven years old, he had already gone through several surgeries to correct his legs and back, which were affected by cerebral palsy. It was believed that through swimming, Johnny would find an alternative exercise that was easier on his joints.
At first, Diehl and two other coaches began working with Johnny, who struggled to move his muscles while floating in the water. The trio would literally carry him across the pool while moving his arm and leg muscles to simulate swimming for an entire year. Diehl and her colleagues hadn't seen much improvement on Johnny's end during that period and began to doubt whether or not he would ever be able to swim, but it was the young boy whose drive and determination inspired them.
"There were times that we were ready to give up and just accept the fact that he probably would never be able to swim," said Diehl, now a sophomore member of the St. Joseph's College women's swimming team. "But he always convinced us that one day he would be able to do it."
With hard work, persistence and the help of Diehl, Johnny would start swimming on his own, and the exercise helped him cope with the difficulties cerebral palsy presented. Today, Johnny no longer walks with crutches or walkers.
Moving forward, Diehl would work with Johnny personally, and the two would build a very special bond. They would find something in one another that they never expected.
"Trying to explain our relationship is tough," said Diehl. "He's like the little brother I didn't know I wanted and the best friend I needed. As hard as I've worked to help him cope with his disease, he has also supported me with my schooling and swimming career. He makes me laugh when things are tough, and he knows he can talk to me about anything. We've grown very close over the past four years and this year I will be his confirmation sponsor."
A child study major at St. Joseph's, it was only natural for Diehl to inherit a mentorship role with someone like Johnny. But the experience has also reaffirmed what she already thought to be true.
"Since I was in third grade I knew I wanted to be a teacher, and nobody could ever steer me in a different direction," said Diehl. "But having someone in my life who reinforced those dreams means more to me than he'll ever know."
As much as Johnny has helped Diehl realize her dreams, she is also doing her part in ensuring he realizes his. The two have worked tirelessly in the pool and this July Diehl will accompany Johnny at the National Junior Disability Championships held in Middleton, WI. The NJDC's are the oldest competitive event held for junior athletes with physical disabilities in North America and for Johnny to qualify is an incredible achievement.
"For Johnny to compete in a meet like this, it's unbelievable for all of us," said Diehl. "We've all see him come so far and he is truly an inspiration to his parents, siblings and me. He always gives 100% in everything he does and always does it with a smile. To see him come this far shows us what hard work, dedication and a great attitude can lead to."
"When I first met him I never imagined what an impact he would have on me. Before meeting Johnny I found it easy to beat myself up when I didn't achieve something, but he is one of the strongest people I know and I'm so thankful every day that he's a big part of my life."