From nearly dead to nearly unstoppable

By Julia Stearly
Posted 8/31/23

John Roccabello never let his deafness define him, or stop him from achieving amazing feats in multiple athletic endeavors.

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From nearly dead to nearly unstoppable


It is not every day that the Rhode Island School for the Deaf (RISD) inducts an individual into their Athletics Hall of Fame. In fact, only seven student-athletes and athletics staff have been awarded the honor since the Hall of Fame’s inception.

This year, however, RISD alumni John Roccabello, of the Class of 1962, was recognized for his many accomplishments and admitted to the Hall of Fame on Aug. 15.

Roccabello recalls his love for athletics developing around the age of nine, when he began watching figure skating competitions. These strongly piqued his interest, and inspired him to take up the sport.

“I really felt that I was a part of the team on the TV,” he explained in his acceptance speech. “I asked my mother to let me learn skating and to my disappointment she flatly refused.”

John, however, did not take ‘no’ for an answer, and he and a neighbor attempted to learn to skate on a nearby pond. This adventure didn’t go according to plan, though, and ended with Roccabello falling through the ice and being rescued by a neighbor of the pond. His adamance came across strongly though.

“My body was frozen, but I was alive,” he said. “From then, my mother knew that she could not hold me back from wanting to skate.”

Decades later, Roccabello’s passion for the sport had grown exponentially and around age 30, he joined the Providence Figure Skating Club, where he took formal skating lessons and went on to compete internationally. He recalled being invited to represent the Winter Olympics for the Deaf for Team USA in France, where he participated in figure skating. He won the gold medal in the 2005 U.S. Eastern Sectional Figure Skating Championships for those aged 55 and older.

Eventually, the Providence Figure Skating Club closed for good and, not wanting to commute to another rink, John took up running. He went on to run the Boston Marathon over 20 times, explaining that he did so because, “I wanted to challenge my body and mind.”

He won his age bracket in over 130 races throughout his running career, and then returned to figure skating, and competed for several more years.
“The last one I competed in was the National Adult Championship in Ann Arbour, Michigan where I came in first in my age group,” he recalled.

Since these accomplishments, John changed gears from running and skating to lower-impact swimming, and has competed in several meets throughout the New England area, including an impressive three gold medal performance in the 2013 Rhode Island Senior Games, topping the podium at the freestyle, backstroke, and breaststroke events.

When not engaging in his various athletic pursuits, Roccabello attained the status of Master Gardener, and helped manicure the pristine grounds of Colt State Park for 35 years.

“I appreciate your recognition as it means so much to me,” Roccabello concluded his acceptance speech. “The honor tonight will be with me all the time when I swim, for as long as my body allows. Thank you all and God bless you.”

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