A common symptom of Down syndrome is a degree of intellectual impairment. But when Italian teenager Valerio Catoia, who lives with the condition, saw two girls struggling out at sea, he knew what it meant. They were in danger. And he knew what he needed to do. So he dived in and fought to save them.
Catoia is much like many other teenage boys. In his third year of high school, he was studying human sciences, possibly because of his love of sports. You see, as well as being a member of a scout group, Catoia loves taking part in athletics. But there’s one sport he has a particular passion for.
Above everything else – even his hobby of playing guitar – Catoia loves to swim. He learned to swim when he was just three years old. His family encouraged him to do so to strengthen his muscles and survive in the water, because there was something that set him apart from other kids.
Catoia was born with Down syndrome, a disorder that affects a child’s development both physically and mentally. His parents, however, hadn’t wanted the condition to limit what their son was capable of. Before he was 18 months old, they were sending their boy to speech therapy classes.
When he was three, Catoia’s parents took him to the pool for the first time at the specialists’ recommendation. At first, the toddler didn’t appear to enjoy his time in the water at all. Indeed, according to his instructor, Roberto Cavana, the young Catoia would cry and cling to the edge of the pool.
But his parents persevered, often without a support network around them and with only the voice of the swimming coach to encourage them. And then, eventually, Catoia let go of the edge of the pool and suddenly there was no stopping him. He took to swimming like a duck to water.
In fact, there was no holding the young Catoia back from the water. He would swim until he couldn’t swim any more. During the winter months, he would head to the pool and put in the laps there. And when the weather was more favorable, he loved to swim in the open water.
Sabaudia is a town on the Italian coast, around a 60-minute drive south of Rome. The town features a delightful beach, popular as a day-trip getaway from Italy’s capital. It’s the very beach where Catoia and his family chose to spend a day during the summer of 2017.
Catoia was with his father and younger sister. The three of them were playing in the water, staying close to a quiet part the beach. As they had fun in the sea, however, something caught their attention. From some distance, they heard a commotion and some shouting.
What they could hear were the cries of two young girls. It was two sisters, aged 14 and 10, who had been pulled out to sea by the current. Realizing that they didn’t have the strength to fight the tide and make their way back to shore, they began screaming and shouting for help.
Catoia saw the younger of the two girls disappear under the water and resurface moments later. The teenager immediately knew what he needed to do. Despite the evident risk to their own safety, Catoia dived into the sea behind his father, and they both swam out to the girls in distress.
But then Catoia took the lead. The teenager had been taught rescue skills and the techniques that should be implemented when someone is in danger as part of his swimming training. He positioned the 10-year-old’s head so it remained above water, and his father followed suit.
Together, the father and son dragged the two girls back to the shore, saving them from a likely drowning. Back on the beach, there were life guards ready to take over. It just happened that Catoia and his father had been closer to the scene and so were able to reach the girls first.
You see, it’s not that Catoia simply enjoyed swimming, but over the years he had become remarkably good at it. Showing improvement every time he took to the water, the young Catoia began to show real potential in the sport. And by the age of 11, he was entering swimming competitions.
Since his very first race Catoia would achieve high-placing finishes, earning silver and bronze medals. He became a member of FISDIR, which is the Italian governing body of paralympic sports. In 2016 the teenager took part in a competition in Florence, specifically for athletes who live with Down syndrome.
It was at this contest where Catoia first demonstrated his lifesaving skills before a panel of international adjudicators. He may have only performed the task as a demonstration with a mannequin, but it proved to be a vital one. Just a year later, he perfectly executed the maneuver, saving someone’s life for real.
On the day of the demonstration, Catoia was given a round of applause for his display. After all, it was no easy task dragging a mannequin – weighted to mimic the average human at 154 pounds – across the length of a pool and past two obstacles on the way.
And, indeed, on the day of the rescue, there was an even greater sense of what Catoia had achieved. He received hugs of gratitude from the two lifeguards on the scene, then warmth and love from his proud parents and sister. But there was someone who didn’t seem entirely grateful.
According to accounts of the incident in the Italian press, the mother of the two girls whose lives the Catoias saved gave nothing in return. She allegedly turned and left without offering so much as a thank you. All across the country, however, the teenager was hailed a national hero.
Catoia was awarded a “Bishop of the Republic” by the region’s president, Sergio Mattarella. His father, Giovanni, credits his son’s dedication to sport for equipping the teenager with a single-minded determination for overcoming his limitations and not allowing his Down syndrome to be seen as a disability.