By Josh Veltrie
Tourette’s Syndrome is a disease that is often talked about. There was even once an episode of the popular Comedy Central show, South Park, where Tourette’s was the theme. But not many people know exactly what Tourette’s is or realize how difficult it is to live with. Just ask junior diver Brendan Cavallaro.
Cavallaro, a standout on the swimming and diving team at Rider, has had Tourette’s since he was 8 years old.
Tourette’s syndrome (TS) is a neurological disorder where the patient suffers from tics. Tics are repetitive, stereotyped, involuntary movements and vocalizations. While most people associate Tourette’s with shouting profanities uncontrollably, that is actually extremely rare.
“I have a mild case [of TS],” said the native of Middleboro, Mass. “I have a head twitch, vocals, I make noises, my arms jump, my stomach jumps but it all goes away when I’m diving.”
When he first started having twitches and making noises, he was taken to a couple of doctors who claimed he was just a normal kid and nothing was wrong.
“It was pretty funny looking back on it. My mom would tell me to stop making noises and stop messing around because she thought I was making it up,” Cavallaro said. “She felt really bad when we went back to the doctors and they finally diagnosed me.”
The 5’8” junior realized as a kid during gymnastics that when he was focusing on performing a task, his symptoms would subside. When he got on a diving board his sophomore year of high school, the same thing happened. All of his symptoms were gone.
“Once I step onto the board everything stops. It happens sometimes when I am really focusing on schoolwork and stuff too, but every time I get on the board everything stops,” Cavallaro said.
As a sophomore at Rider, Cavallaro qualified for the NCAA Zones and finished 15th in the 3-meter and 20th in the 1-meter. This past year he improved in the 3-meter with a 10th-place finish and ended up in 31st in the 1-meter.
“There are days where Brendan is stressed out or excited and I watch him get on the board and think to myself that it isn’t going to stop and he’s going to have to skip his turn until he can relax a little more,” said diving coach Kristen Ceppa. “And then I watch him take that final breath that he does and it truly does disappear. The five seconds or so from the start of a dive until he pops back up out of the water, Brendan is tic free. You would honestly never believe it if you saw it.”
Cavallaro faced a lot of adversity once he entered middle school, which is tough enough on children without having Tourette’s.
“I had a tough time with it when I was first diagnosed because I was so young and I didn’t know what it was really,” Cavallaro said. “I got made fun of a lot in middle school, but it was nice because one of the teachers in my middle school had it also. And I still talk to him to this day, so I have a lifelong friend now from it.”
A lot of people don’t know what Tourette’s is, so when they see someone with it, it is natural to stare, Cavallaro said. He did presentations in high school about Tourette’s and noticed a difference in how people treated him once they understood the disease he had.
“I still get stared at walking around campus sometimes, and it can be really difficult for me to read and write because my arms jump,” said Cavallaro. “When I talk about having [TS] or think about it, the twitches and movements tend to get a lot worse.”
Cavallaro has tried taking medication for TS, but all three times he has ended up in the hospital because his body didn’t react well to it.
“My senior year of high school I went to the hospital for the medication I was taking,” Cavallaro said. “I was having episodes where I didn’t know who I was, where I was, [I didn’t know] anybody around me, I would shake uncontrollably and it was really bad.”
Cavallaro now only takes anxiety medication when he is feeling some extra stress because of finals or midterms because it helps with his symptoms. He hopes to finish his Rider career next year by improving in his favorite event, the three-meter dive, which is also his best event.
“I would like to win MAACs next year and break the other record Paul [Apostolakis] has,” Cavallaro said. “I just hope to keep improving.”