The No. 1 motivator proves disability can’t slow him down

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Riverhead senior Anthony Mammina, who suffers from a seizure disorder, finds solace in running, which has taken him all over the country, including the Junior Olympics.

The first seizure of the day usually strikes when Anthony Mammina places his feet on the ground in the morning. Early in the afternoon, he’s dealt another trembling jolt.

He calls it his “one o’clock.”

On an average day, the 17-year-old Riverhead student will persevere through two to three seizures. Other days can be worse, especially when it’s hot outside or he’s dehydrated.

They’re not often extreme — the kind that could send him convulsing to the ground — but they’re seizures nonetheless.

And sometimes they strike during his favorite activity, the one thing that drives him more than anything else: running.

When his body begins to shake at the onset of a seizure, he’ll slow down his running pace. He rarely stops.

“The seizure does slow you down,” Anthony said, “but you try to run through it as best you can.”

It’s with that attitude Anthony approaches every obstacle he faces. He lives his life with unbridled enthusiasm and a positive outlook, an ultimate motivator who pushes those around him to achieve what may seem impossible.

Anthony himself has already achieved what may have seemed impossible. A special education student who suffered his first seizure when he was 14 months old, Anthony pushed through his disability, which has also affected his brain function, to become a junior black belt in karate. He joined the Boy Scouts, where he’s still pursuing becoming an Eagle Scout.

For a little over a year now, his top passion has been running. At least six days a week he trains to become a faster runner, through rain, snow or sleet. “He’s like a mailman,” said his mother, Jenn.

His dedication has paid off with two trips to the Junior National Olympics, most recently at the end of July when he finished fourth in the 800-meter ambulatory race. He darted across the finish line in 2 minutes 47.14 seconds, nearly twice as fast as the time it took him to go that distance when he began running.

“I’m getting quicker and faster each time I do it,” Anthony said at his home in Wading River, where he sat in his uniform with his recent medals placed in front of him. “I’ve been training every day. Every day you have to train.”

His disability dates back to his early childhood. On the first day of kindergarten, he fell in the driveway as he walked toward the bus. His parents originally thought he was allergic to bananas.

The seizures disappeared for several years, but Anthony’s parents always knew there was a chance they could return. The nightmare returned when Anthony was 13 and hit puberty.

His last seizure had been so long ago, he didn’t know what was happening to him. One time he fell into a coffee table, leaving him with a gash.

There are no easy solutions to his condition. Brain surgery is an option, but the risks are too great for the family to currently consider it, his mother said. So they focus on other ways to control the seizures, such as a new high-fat, low-carb diet he recently started, which he doesn’t mind.

“I think I need to gain a little fat because I’m like this fork,” he said.

What has been clear is the effect running has had on him. Mentally and physically, he’s in better condition when he’s actively running, his mother said.

His career began at the suggestion of Riverhead teacher Maria Dounelis, who taught Anthony in physical education. She noticed that he had long legs and a natural running motion. Dounelis, who coaches the varsity girls track and field team at Riverhead, arranged for Anthony to join a local running club called Rolling Thunder.

Athletes of all levels can train at Rolling Thunder, including those with disabilities like autism or epilepsy.

“Rolling Thunder tries to play to their ability, not their disability,” Jenn Mammina said.

As Anthony became more involved with running, he decided to give up karate and focus on his new sport, although he still has plans to return to karate at some point.

He said it looked like the practices would be easy when he started, but he quickly found out how hard it can be.

“You have to run a lot and practice a lot,” he said. “And you have to give up most of your day to practice and learn how to do all the stuff. But as you get into it, it starts to get easier and easier.”

This past spring Anthony also joined the high school track team, running the 800 and an occasional 1,500. He runs in road races and last January completed the half-marathon at Disney. In the fall, he plans to run cross country for Riverhead.

Running has become a family tradition. One night while her sons were at Boys Scout camp, Ms. Mammina said, she decided to sign up for a half-marathon through the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. It was something she had never done before.

“My husband goes, ‘Who are you and what did you do with my wife?’ ” she said.

Soon after, the whole family was running, including 13-year-old Nicholas, who’s deaf and has a cochlear implant. He also runs with Rolling Thunder.

Anthony ran with his parents in the half-marathon at Disney, although not for long.

Unwilling to run at their slower pace, Anthony surged ahead of his parents and completed the race on his own.

“He picked us up at the finish line,” his mother said.

Anthony keeps plenty busy outside of running. His enjoys reading and he said his skills have been improving. Math isn’t his strongest suit, but he said he’s improving there as well. Sometimes he likes science, depending on the subject.

At school he was involved in a start-up recycling program. He’s also trained in first aid and CPR.

“When I used to do karate, I said sign me up for first aid because you never know,” he said. “Hopefully I want to teach it someday. In my free time, maybe as I get older.”

His passion for running has become infectious to those around him. His engine never quits. His mom calls him the “the No. 1 motivator.”

“I can be a tough one,” Anthony admitted. “People say you can’t be tough but then it comes to running and I can really motivate.”

Hanging on the wall in his room is a big sheet of orange paper with inspirational quotes to always keep him motivated.

“He becomes a different child out there when he runs,” his mother said. “He’s not the boy that lives here. He becomes a motivator. He gets people up and going.”

Sometimes, Anthony admits, it can be difficult to find that extra gear. Sometimes he wants to give up. But then he thinks down deep and channels that inner desire.

“Like my instructor says, your legs might say no, I can’t do this, but your mind says keep on going,” he said. “You always have more in you that you don’t know about.”

He turned his head, smiled and said, “Right, Mom?”

“That’s what you tell me,” she said.

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