Recovery from illness motivated this Springfield nurse to become a national-caliber athlete

An illness tied to food poisoning sidelined a Springfield nurse for two years, but her recovery sparked an athletic career that will lead her to her second competition in the National Senior Games.

Diana Castellano already enjoyed biking and swimming, but a bout of food poisoning made her seriously ill in 2007, the wound care nurse at the Springfield Regional Medical Center said. She developed reactive arthritis related to the illness, and it knocked her out of enjoying her hobbies for almost two years.

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With the help of a physical therapist, she was eventually able to begin swimming again at the YMCA in Wilmington, Ohio. A lifeguard there asked if she was training for a triathalon, a sport she had never considered. But she took a business card for a trainer and with permission from her therapist began training for a sprint triathalon about six months later.

She said a sprint triathalon typically includes a half-mile swim, a 12.5-mile bike ride and around a three-mile run.

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“I did my first one at Deer Creek (State Park),” Castellano said. “It was an all-women’s triathalon. Everyone was so encouraging. At that point I was hooked.”

Several years later, Castellano was in Cleveland when she saw commercials promoting the National Senior Games that were taking place in the city that year.

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“Here I was in my 50s and I’d never even heard of it,” she said.

To qualify, Castellano said athletes need to compete at an annual state competition. Castellano qualified at the state level in 2014 and was able to compete in the National Senior Games in Minneapolis a year later. There, the competition gets a lot tougher, she joked. Castellano said her goal at the national events isn’t necessarily to win or even place. She just wants to finish her events and compete against her own times.

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“There are some seniors who are 10 or 20 years older than me and they are really fast,” she said of the national competition.

Years after her illness, part of the reason Castellano has to stay active is it still helps with the last lingering bits of discomfort. She rides her bike and swims year-round, but tries to ramp up training as her events get close to avoid injury or exhaustion and to fit into a full-time work schedule.

She skipped out on the 2017 National Senior Games because instead she had planned a 200-mile bike tour through the Florida Keys, although a hurricane interrupted her plans. However, she recently qualified to compete in the 2019 games, which will be held in Albuquerque, N.M.

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Qualifying at the state level for those events meant competing in three bikes races in Portsmouth, Ohio in a single day late last month, then driving to Westerville for a day of swimming events. Often, Castellano said there are only a few competitors in the age group allowing her a better chance to qualify. But she also said she intentionally chooses tougher distance events where even fewer athletes are willing to compete.

At the national games, Castellano said athletes are only allowed to compete in two sports, so she’ll have to choose between biking, swimming and a triathalon. She joked she plans to keep competing in the events as long as she’s able.

“If I do it long enough maybe I can place first or second in something because I’ll be so old there won’t be anybody else,” she said.

In the meantime, she said the events just give her motivation to stay active.

“I love riding the bike on the trails and I love the challenge of getting in shape to do longer distances,” she said.

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