John Siciliano: Contender

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By Jane Albritton

Hulk Hogan, co-host of the NBC television show American Gladiators, turned to Phil Conley, CP, John Siciliano's prosthetist and said, "This guy is crazy!"

Hulk Hogan introduces Siciliano (right) and another contender before the Powerball competition. NBC Photo: Peter Hopper Stone.
Hulk Hogan introduces Siciliano (right) and another contender before the Powerball competition. NBC Photo: Peter Hopper Stone.

"He was amazed at what John could do," Conley says. "After John finished the Eliminator, Hogan rushed over to tell him that it was the greatest Eliminator he had ever seen. But that is no surprise. John doesn't quit."

Those not acquainted with the hyper-physical world of American Gladiators might not appreciate what it meant to be the first Para-lympian to participate in a show that pits amateur athletes against action stars and stunt professionals who go by names such as Justice, Wolf, Rocket, Titan, Phoenix, and Hurricane. At 5 feet 7 inches and 155 pounds, Siciliano faced the likes of Justice, who weighs in at 290 pounds, stands 6 feet 8 inches, and has an arm span of around 7 feet.

"It was the most physically challenging thing I have ever done," Siciliano says. "The events are not amputee friendly, especially not for an above-the-knee amputee."

As a matter of fact, the show originally put the call out for a transtibial amputee. But in Los Angeles, Siciliano is the man who gets the amputee calls.

"People know me here," he says. "I am pretty agile and athletic. The show wanted someone who had a good story and who had been in front of cameras before."

Siciliano qualified on all counts. The youngest of nine children, Siciliano lost his mother at age nine. Growing up in Springdale, Pennsylvania, close to Pittsburgh, he followed his twin interests in sports and acting from the time he was a child. The first in his family to go to college, Siciliano attended Point Park University, majoring in theater and journalism on a four-year soccer scholarship. Life was good until a drunk driver hit the open-sided Jeep he was sitting in at a stoplight. Siciliano was thrown from the passenger seat upon impact. As a result of injuries from the accident, his right leg was amputated four inches above the knee.

"When I got hurt, I had no medical insurance," he says. "But someone gave me a Paralympics brochure when I was in the hospital, and that gave me hope that I could still be an athlete. Then the insurance company gave me my first leg. They didn't care if I wanted to be an athlete. The hoops I had to go through in 1993. I now own about 15 different legs."

Siciliano, who is a business development coordinator for Endo-lite North America, Centerville, Ohio, makes it clear that his determination to act and continue as an athletic competitor has been matched by the support of his employer, as well as Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics, Bethesda, Maryland, and Conley.

"I wear a Mercury Hi-Activity knee system," he says. "But the demands of the Gladiator competition required some additional creativity from Phil"

For Conley, who has worked with Siciliano for some eight years, a call describing a great opportunity-complete with great challenges and a really short turnaround time-came as no particular surprise.

"When he moved out here from Pennsylvania to go to school at USC, he got in touch with Hanger and asked for a referral," Conley says. "I have learned that when John comes in, I will... be working through lunch and on the weekends-like the time he needed a pirate peg leg for his role as Pokey the Pirate in the Sponge Bob Square Pants movie.

The Gladiators hug Siciliano after the Powerball competition. NBC Photo: Peter Hopper Stone.
The Gladiators hug Siciliano after the Powerball competition. NBC Photo: Peter Hopper Stone.

"For the Gladiator competition, I knew he would need a selection of legs that he could use for water and climbing and running. As soon as he called, I started mentally preparing and thinking how we could address those needs."

The first sample of what Siciliano might be facing came at the two-day "boot camp" after which the casting director would make the final selection of contestants.

"I had a bag full of tools, and John had a bag full of feet and knees," Conley says. "They give you a little taste of what the events are like, but they don't let you practice everything. They want to see how people do in front of a camera."

The casting decision came quickly.

Boot camp started on Friday; casting called Siciliano Sunday morning at 10:30 and said, "John, you're on the show!" Both Siciliano and Conley understood that the Gladiator competition would be unlike anything they had ever taken on before.

"I'm a sprinter, and I can train for sprinting," Siciliano says, "but there is no training for this because you don't know until the day which events you will participate in."

Conley adds that Siciliano is a triathlete, used to competing in water and on land.

"Amputees who compete in triathletic events typically change legs for the different stages. Some swimmers don't even use prosthetics," he says. "But the Gladiator events are different. A lot of them take place over water, and so we had to create a socket that would hold suction on land and in the water if John fell in."

Aside from having to come up with an all-purpose leg that would work in any of the 17 possible events (from which four plus the Eliminator are chosen for each pair of contestants), Siciliano and Conley had to figure out what to do about the 50-foot climbing wall in case it was one of the five.

Then came the day.

"It was fun to be there," Conley says. "I was kind of like the pit crew. John is getting dressed, and I'm tuning the knee and getting everything balanced. I dialed in the knee, and then the Gladiator crew came in and taped and padded everything-not to protect John, but to protect the Gladiators from getting hurt on his prosthetics. Then we had to be sure that he could still move well. Sometimes they had to redo the padding."

Siciliano adds that the competitors were not allowed to see the Gladiators until they entered the arena.

"They keep you in a holding room," he says. "You are under constant supervision. Then you go out and see a guy like Justice, and all you can think is, 'Oh, my, that is a big guy.'"

In the draw of events, Siciliano came up with Hang Tough (swinging on rings while evading the Gladiator), Rocketball, Powerball, the Wall, and the Eliminator.

"I thought I would do pretty well on the rings, but when I saw Justice coming at me, I just froze. He was skipping whole sets of rings. He grabbed me and threw me down into the water."

While Siciliano could not hold on, his leg did.

The second event, Rocketball, held the greatest potential for injury.

"You're strapped into a harness with ratchets that launch you 25 to 30 feet in the air at the touch of a button. It's like playing basketball in mid-air, except that you get launched into this mass of muscle that's trying to defend the baskets."

In one tense moment, a Gladiator popped Siciliano hard, and his prosthetic foot caught in the net. Conley explains that the contestants are warned not to hold on to the net because the launching cable will retract and bring them crashing to the ground.

"That socket was not coming off Conley says. "Luckily he got his foot untangled before the cable retracted."

Siciliano and his co-contender get ready to begin the Eliminator. NBC Photo: Peter Hopper Stone.
Siciliano and his co-contender get ready to begin the Eliminator. NBC Photo: Peter Hopper Stone.

The next event, Powerball, proved to be a little tricky because the game is played on mats.

"The energy return of the carbon feet I run on depends on a hard surface," he says. "Running on the mats felt like running on quicksand. But I won that event. Afterward, the Gladiators ran over and hugged me. They were great with me. They showed great respect."

Enough respect to knock him around like they would any other competitor.

The 50-foot climbing wall that leans past vertical presented a different kind of challenge for Siciliano and Conley.

"With that kind of gravitational pull, a prosthetic knee will just not work" Conley says. "So we took the knee off and used a short pylon when he put on his leg. Running on that leg would have been impossible, but with the wall, he only had to climb."

Siciliano did well.

"Wolf was chasing me up the wall," he says. "You can muscle up the first 25 feet, but then you have to use your legs. I was two moves away from the top when he grabbed me."

The final event of every show is the Eliminator, an obstacle course that begins with diving off a ten-foot platform and swimming beneath a flaming surface. Siciliano broke the surface and headed for the cargo net.

"I thought I would fly up the cargo net, but my foot kept getting caught because the net was slack I had to use so much upper-body strength that by the time I got to the hand cycle I was worn out," he says. "Running across the spinning log was difficult. At the end of it I crashed into the mats full force, but I had high confidence that my knee would hold up. And sure enough, I got up and it kept up with me."

One balance beam and zip-line ride later, Siciliano pulled himself to the top of the Travelator (reverse escalator) then crashed through the finish line to a standing ovation and a hug from Hulk Hogan.

That night the audience witnessed the same courage Siciliano exhibited 12 years before at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games. In the 200-meter sprint, an event Siciliano was favored to win, his leg came off and he fell to the track. He got back up, collected his leg and hopped to the finish line to a standing ovation.

"I love working with John" Conley says. "He pushes me and his components to the limit. If anything is going to break, he will break it. That's what makes my work fun."

In the immediate future, Siciliano plans to continue acting and to work with returning soldiers who have had amputations and are impatient to run again.

"It is very cool to work with these soldiers and programs like the Wounded Warrior Project" Siciliano says. "I have a lot to tell them. If they want to run, they can"

Someone who challenges Gladiators ought to know.

Jane Albritton is president of Tiger Enterprises, Writing Consultants. She is a contributing writer for the Northern Colorado Business Report and Edibles Front Range. She is also an editor for a 50th Anniversary collection of Peace Corps stories. She can be reached at www.peacecorpsat50.org