Redefining 'normal:' Double amputee writes about 'lucky' life
He's run the New York City marathon. He's working for an international firm in Stamford. He's getting his master's degree in business administration at the University of Connecticut, And he is the father of an 8-month-old girl.
"My goal was to lead a normal life after everything I'd been through," he said. "I was looking for the new normal."
Tartaglio is now an author and motivational speaker, in addition to everything else he does. He has been on Oprah Winfrey's television show three times -- including once in January when he updated Winfrey's audience on his inspirational story. He is also an athlete and member of Team A Step Ahead, a team made up of athletes using prosthetic devices.
"John is by far one-of-a-kind and his role as a mentor and ... athlete is paramount to those of all ability levels, whether they wear a prosthetic or not," said Erik Schaffer, founder of the team. "John has managed to defy the odds to every extreme."
Tartaglio was a baseball and football player at Foran High School in Milford when he woke up one day in extreme pain with a very rare bacterial infection. The next day, he went into surgery and came out with both legs mputated just below the hips. His left bicep was also removed. At that moment, his life changed forever.
"I had to come to terms with the fact that my life was going to be completely different," he said.
He was home-schooled for a while, but graduated with his high school class despite the rigorous physical therapy and other treatments he had to endure. After high school, he chose to attend Fairfield University because it fit his needs perfectly, he said. The school had a good reputation and it was far enough away from his Milford home that he could live independently on campus, but close enough to get the support he needed from his doctors and physical therapists at Yale-New Haven and Norwalk hospitals.
While he was a college student, he became the first person to run a 5k and 10k road race without legs.
The school had to make some accommodations for him -- to the bathroom in his freshman dorm, for example. But he lived in the university's townhouses, and later at a rental on the local beachfront, where he was able to make a few minor changes to the house he leased -- not much different than hundreds of other students from the unviersity.
Another Fairfield University graduate, Andrew Chapin, the co-author with Tartaglio of a new book about Tartaglio's life, "From Tragedy to Triumph," met Tartaglio when Chapin was writing a story for the college newspaper after Tartaglio ran in the New York City marathon.
"Sitting down and talking with him candidly allowed me to realize that he was as ordinary as any other kid at the school," Chapin said. "He had transcended his disability."
Tartaglio graduated cum laude from Fairfield University in 2009. Chapin, now a middle-school English teacher in New Rochelle, N.Y., said he was honored when Tartaglio approached him about writing the book, which took more than a year. Tartaglio was the impetus behind the book from the beginning, and their partnership increased his admiration for his friend's ability to overcome whatever difficulties he faced.
"He is a role model for so many, whether they are disabled or able-bodied," Chapin said. "John brings out the best in anyone he comes into contact with."
And as unlikely as it may seem, Tartaglio said he feels lucky. Although he is one of fewer than 50 people in the nation who have contracted the kind of infection that cost him his legs, he feels that his success at living a normal life has been fortunate. He met his wife, Genevieve, in Milford shortly after graduating from college, and now they are the parents of a daughter who is clearly his pride and joy.
"I'm lucky enough to do more than I ever thought was possible," he said.
Tartaglio crosses the country as a motivational speaker, speaking about once a month, and has spoken locally at Housatonic Community College, Sacred Heart University, Oxford High School and other venues. He also runs when he has time and participates in triathlons -- swimming, biking with a hand cycle and racing in a wheelchair -- and runs other races using special running prosthetics.
"John is one of a kind, the only one in the world that has achieved these levels," Schaffer said. "He inspires all to do and be better ... to push the limits of what we thought was possible."
Tartaglio is often asked how he was able to accomplish so much, what kept him going despite the difficult circumstances of his life. What has gotten him through can be summed up in one sentence, he said, and it's his motto: "How far you fall doesn't determine who you are, it's how hard you work to get back up."