Gold Medalist Steve Serio’s Full-Time Training Schedule

steve serio
Gold Medalist Steve Serio Talks Olympic PrepRaftermen LLC; dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo; Matt Ryan, MH Illustration

This story is part of Men's Health's "Road to the Olympics" series, where six athletes share their training journeys as they prepare to compete at the 2024 Paris Olympics in July. Read all of the athletes' entries here.

WHEN HE WAS 11 months old, Steve Serio, 36, underwent surgery to remove a tumor in his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed. At the age of 14, he took up wheelchair basketball—where he went on to play for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and professionally in Germany for several years after college.

Now, he is co-captain of the USA Men's National Wheelchair Basketball team. He helped lead the team to its gold medal in 2016 in Rio De Janeiro and then again in 2020 in Tokyo. He's now heading into his 5th Olympics, in search of his third consecutive gold—a feat never done (yet!) by a wheelchair basketball team. He's currently training in his native New York City, where we met up with him in mid-April to discuss his Olympic preparations.

MEN'S HEALTH: What does a typical week of training look like for you right now?

STEVE SERIO: Even though wheelchair basketball is a team sport, a majority of our training is done at the individual level. In a typical week, I'm on the court about four to five times, with a lot of sessions being two hours each. That training is really up to our discretion, interestingly enough. We obviously have coaches, but we don't get on-court training programs. You're expected to get up shots; you're expected to push—you're expected to come into these training camps in basketball shape so that we can get to work as a team and not have to work on little things like ball handling and such.

So, I'm normally out there on my own. What I usually do is mix cardio with spot-specific shooting, trying to mimic the game as much as I can. If I'm going to work on free throws, I'm going to push for five minutes beforehand and then go to the free throw line. That way, it will feel like a game.

I'm also in the weight room three to four times every single week. I follow a lifting schedule that comes from my strength and conditioning coach from Team USA. Right now, I'm actually nursing a shoulder injury. I dislocated my shoulder about two months ago, so I'm slowly working my way back into the gym. Before that, though, my splits were two push days (where exercises involve a 'pushing' motion—typically working the muscles on the front of the body) and two pull days (where exercises involve a 'pull' motion—typically working the back of the body), with abs every single day. I also like to do some supplemental cardio, which, as an adaptive sports athlete, there are not many cardio exercises or modalities that I can use. But for me, the rowing machine is the one I use the most. Since we're constantly pushing in our sport, I like to get a bit of pull.

I supplement it with various types of recovery training, which I like to branch out for. I've been doing a lot of Pilates. It's one of the things I'm really excited about because my body has never felt better. For basketball players, range of motion is so incredibly important. The muscles that give us the most problems are the small muscles of our shoulders and upper back. Pilates addresses that a ton for me.

MH: Your teammates are all over the country. How do you guys navigate training as a team?

SS: The USA wheelchair basketball team works in a centralized model, meaning we live all across the US but during the Paralympic summer, we come together every two weeks in Colorado Springs to train together. A majority of our training is done on the individual level, but we come together every two weeks during the Paralympic summer. We actually just named our team a few weeks ago, and we're leaving tomorrow for our first training camp.

The hard reality about being a Paralympic athlete is that we don't get the same amount of funding as Olympic counterparts, so many of the guys have jobs. We have to be very sensitive to how much time they miss from work and stuff like that. So, this model of getting together every few weeks on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday works for us.

MH: You're 36 now and have been training with Team USA for decades. How does your training look different now than when you were starting out?

SS: Early on in my career, I was more focused on my work in the weight room than on my sports-specific skills. I've always been a talented wheelchair basketball player. But when I first got onto Team USA, my goal was to be the most conditioned, fittest, buffest version of myself I could possibly be.

As I've progressed, I realized that basketball is a skill game—it's won on the court. I needed to focus less on putting on muscle and more on a range of motion. I needed to make sure that my shoulders can maintain decades of work and not just one pure heavy load of a bench press. And that's when I started to excel in my career. It's definitely changed from trying to be the most in shape that I can be to being the best athlete I can be.

As you get older, every single decision that you make is going to affect who you are as an athlete the next day. As I've aged, those decisions have become more heavily weighted.

I'm constantly thinking, how is this going to affect my next workout? The amount of sleep I get, what I eat, how many cheat meals I have, and whether I drink all add up. It's a mental grind, for sure.

MH: This is your 5th Olympics. How does the meaning of the experience change as you do more?

SS: This will absolutely be my last Olympics. I can tell you that I am so incredibly jealous of all the athletes getting a chance to compete in L.A.—it'd be so cool to be on home turf. But I'm 36, and I've done everything I've wanted to do. I'm ready to make that transition.

So now, a lot of what I'm trying to do is spread the word and give it all meaning. The impact that I can have on the adaptive sports community, making sure that everyone can discover the athlete within themselves to whatever various degree, is the thing I'm most excited to give back as my career comes to an end.

So, I'm working with a number of different organizations that are trying to impact adaptive sports in a variety of ways. One of those is the Challenged Athletes Foundation, where we try to remove the financial burdens associated with being an adaptive sports athlete. For instance, if you're an able-bodied basketball player, you buy a pair of sneakers, you buy a basketball, and you go out, and you can shoot hoops. For us, we have a sports specific wheelchair that we use, and they can run you a good $10,000. So, if a kid wants to play wheelchair basketball, there are some significant financial burdens associated. We try to remove those hurdles.

MH: What's your biggest challenge at this point in your training?

SS: It's knowing when to dive back in. As I mentioned, I am going through a little bit of an injury. I'm on the mend, so I'm going to get back to a normal training schedule over the next two weeks. But the last six weeks have been really, really hard, trying to mentally and physically prepare to make the team—to put myself in the best position to show the selection committee why I belong on the team. I don't take that stuff for granted, even though I've been on the team for a number of years now.

But I'm struggling with knowing when to listen to my body when it's saying I'm doing too much or I need to pull back. It's difficult to understand that ice and rehab exercises are exactly what my body needs. I keep saying to myself: my body doesn't need to be cranked up to 10 right now. And that is a mental mind bend. The pressure's on you and people are relying on you to perform...and you're just sitting on the couch with an ice pack on your shoulder.

I just have to keep reminding myself that there's plenty of time to get back to where I need to get to—but right now, this is what my body needs.

MH: What are you excited about at this point in your training?

SS: I'm leaving tomorrow to head to our first training camp. That's the first time the 12 athletes and the staff will be together to start building this Paralympic gold medal-winning team. A lot of people think that you just pick up the most talented group of athletes, and it just kind of fits together on the court. But the truth is, the success that you have in the game has nothing to do with basketball. It has everything to do with relationships and making sure that the pieces fit next to each other.

I'm honestly looking forward to just being back on the court and taking the very first step with the team that's ultimately going to compete for gold. That's what I'm most excited about.

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