- May 29, 2019
Standing to the far left side of TD Bank in Winter Park, CJ Piantieri takes his shot.
He hurls a fat beanbag toward a cornhole board decorated in Florida State logos — his favorite team. Each time, he hits pay dirt, while his mom, Sande, and store supervisor, Angel Gonzalez watch.
It was a rainy afternoon Friday, June 8, as Piantieri was on-hand to help promote the Special Olympics to visitors passing in and out of the bank as a part of TD’s partnership with the organization.
The customers and bank employees who shook his hand that day probably didn’t realize they had met a man who dominates the realm of powerlifting at the Special Olympics — where he holds 76 gold medals and six silvers.
“He has enjoyed his time with Special Olympics — I think it has given him more confidence in general to do things, especially since he has been so successful,” said Sande, who also acts as CJ’s voice because of his difficulty in speaking. “It’s given him an arena to be successful — that’s one of the biggest things with some of our special-needs children, students and adults. They need to find that niche, and this is his niche.”
That niche has led Piantieri, a College Park resident, all around the United States and the world. Since 2007, Piantieri has participated in the Special Olympics World Games in Shanghai, China (2007) and Athens, Greece (2011), and next year, he will travel to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
But before then, Piantieri has the Special Olympics U.S. Games in July. And if you ask him how he feels as the games approach, you will get the short, sweet answer.
“It’s just business,” Piantieri said in a serious tone.
“It’s so funny because he’ll compete, and he’ll do really well, then puts down the weight and walks away, and the whole place goes crazy,” Sande said.
For Piantieri, it’s become a routine at these big competitions. He goes in, does the work and then walks away with his neck wrapped with what seems like a ton of gold.
However, this isn’t something that just happened overnight. Piantieri has been honing his craft of powerlifting for the last 30 years.
“He (coach Brian Schwab) actually has him train in the same order as the events — so on Mondays, he trains in squats, on Wednesdays he trains in bench, on Fridays he trains in the deadlift,” Sande said. “He always follows that same pattern. He trains for three hours a week.”
Repetition is often cited by many coaches as being a key ingredient to becoming successful in any given sport, and thanks in part to his training and his condition, Piantieri has that as an advantage.
“It’s so funny, because he’ll compete, and he’ll do
really well, then puts down the weight and walks away, and the whole place goes crazy.”
— Sande Piantieri
“One of the things about CJ is that he has no motor-planning abilities, so when you teach him to do something motorically — first it takes multiple repetitions, up to 1,000 repetitions of a motor skill for him to integrate it — but once you teach him how to do it, he can’t change it,” Sande said. “So he’s not going to do a shortcut, he’s going to do it exactly the same way every time.”
Piantieri’s passion for the sport started at age 14, thanks in part to his mom — a former powerlifter — and an anatomical anomaly in his shoulder that prevented him from participating in his first sport — swimming.
Since that introduction to powerlifting in 1996, Piantieri has become a dominant figure in the 145-pound weight class in the Special Olympics, where he now constantly beats out other athletes half his age.
At his prime, Piantieri lifted a career high 990 pounds across the three events — 355 in the squat, 220 bench and a 420 deadlift — which is made even more impressive when you consider he weighed 142 pounds at the time.
His feats of strength and ability to do the seemingly impossible have drawn attention from a long list of other athletes and celebrities — including Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, supermodel Brooklyn Decker and wrestling legends such as Big Show of the WWE. Piantieri actually has had multiple workouts with Big Show, whom he considers a good friend.
Even though the competition itself is an incredible highlight through the last few decades, as Piantieri has enjoyed powerlifting — along with golf, bocce ball and bowling — it’s the ability to travel around and meet new friends that has become a real joy. It’s why he has no plans of stopping any time soon.
“It’s just provided him so many opportunities not only for travel, but to learn,” Sande said. “When we went to Greece, we met the Russian team from Saint Petersburg, and we still keep in touch with the coach. … He’s had opportunities that he wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s just fun in that way, because he has broaden what he does, and it has expanded his world a lot.”