Legendary RI athlete who broke barriers honored with unique pier

Jason Pisano grits his way through one his more than 50 marathons.

WEST WARWICK, RI (WPRI) — Jason Pisano liked to fish, but finding a pier with a low enough railing for him to wet a hook from his wheelchair was nearly impossible.

Still, he found a way, as he did with many other tasks and goals.

His mother Michele Burdick remembers that doubt about what her only child would be able to do started at birth, with a doctor’s prognosis of how Cerebral Palsy would limit him.

Michele Burdick believes her son was a pioneer.

“He said I don’t see him using any of his limbs to any function,” Burdick recalled.

Her son didn’t listen to doubters, accomplishing more than anyone expected. That included fishing with his feet and hoofing his wheelchair backwards through more than 50 marathons.

“He was one of the first to compete in what was called the mobility impaired division in the Boston Marathon,” Burdick said.

The marathons came after a childhood of surprises that began with young Jason wanting to emulate his hero Muhammad Ali.

“He used to tell his grandmother, put the gloves on my feet,” Burdick said. “Then she bought him a bag and she used to hang up meat in the living room. And you’d come in and he’s punching the meat [like the Rocky movies.]”

Soon he was hanging out with a teenager named Vinnie Pazienza, forming a relationship that would last into Pisano’s adult-years when “Paz” became a boxing champion.

“I kept telling him no, no. And he said no means yes.”

When it was time to go to college, before the Americans with Disabilities Act had an impact, Pisano fought his way into UConn.

Burdick said the university was reluctant to admit her son due to his verbal and physical limitations.

After earning a degree in journalism, he became a local freelance newspaper reporter, typing out his stories with his toes.

“He was truly a pioneer,” his mother said. “When I look at the equipment now, we had no equipment. Nothing was handicap accessible. Nothing.”

Pisano’s neighbor Filomena Gustafson got to know him as he grew from the little boy with boxing gloves on his feet into a young journalist.

Former West Warwick councilwoman Filomena Gustafson.

A few years after she was elected onto the West Warwick Town Council, she had her eyes on changing a less than desirable lot on the Pawtuxet River off Manchester Street.

“You should’ve seen it,” Gustafson said. “Broken bottles, trash. Just a mess.”

She saw it as a great spot for a handicap accessible fishing pier that would include lower railings to allow almost anyone to fish for the Pawtuxet’s bass and trout.

The goal bogged down for various reasons, and Gustafson lost her office but kept pushing.

The eight-year process to clear the lot and build the pier included gathering grant money from a number of sources, including the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the town.

The project outlasted Pisano, who died unexpectedly in 2012 from complications tied to a choking incident.

“I went to that wake and I said Jason you will not be forgotten. Because I saw you sweat at those marathons,” Gustafson said. “He deserves this and I think he gives inspiration to a lot of [us],”

The handicap accessible pier is located at 75 Manchester St.

The pier will be marked with a plaque with Pisano’s name and the phrase “Impossible is nothing,” said many times by Ali, who like Pisano often proved skeptics wrong.

The ribbon cutting is Saturday at Noon at 75 Manchester Street, the new home for only the second handicap accessible fishing pier in the state.

And Pisano’s mom couldn’t be prouder.

“I kept telling him no, no. And he said no means yes. No matter what,” Burdick said.

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