Picture by Kelley L Cox

The incredible story of Special Olympics star Karissa Trinchera

A genetic disorder at birth, development delays, and a severe injury didn't stop the 28-year-old American from succeeding in sport and being a role model in her community.
By Andrew Binner

Don’t tell Karissa Trinchera she can’t do something, unless you want to watch her succeed.

Ever since she was born prematurely with Stickler Syndrome - which causes serious vision, hearing, and joint problems - the American has been proving people wrong.

Doctors gave her just months to live after her birth, but 28 years later she is a swimmer with 53 (yes, fifty three) Special Olympics gold medals, who believes that anything is possible.

Karissa is also a philanthropist who raises money and awareness for causes both in and out of sport.

Earlier this year she decided to switch sports from swimming to equestrian and here, we take a look at her remarkable life story so far.

Karissa (R) is a 53-time Special Olympics' swimming gold medallist.
Picture by Kelley L Cox

USA's Trinchera thriving in adversity

Now 28 years old, Trinchera has the cognitive age of 12.

On top of her genetic disorder, she also had severe brain injury, which resulted in developmental delays.

“They were kind of giving up on her,” her mother Christa told EastIdahoNews.com about the doctors that were presiding over her child at birth.

But Karissa had other plans. Not only did she live, but when she was 12, she realised that her joint condition actually helped her swimming.

She began competing in the Special Olympic Games in California, and thrived.

At high school, she became the first Special Education pupil to make the varsity swim team, while she landed an astounding 48 gold medals at the Special Olympics.

After success at local and national level, she was named an international athlete of the year in 2015 for her aquatics achievements.

Tragic car accident

But just when things seemed to be going so well, disaster struck.

Trinchera suffered a serious shoulder injury that required six pins, after being hit by a car. The driver that hit her had been texting at the wheel.

Once again the doctors doubted her, saying that she wouldn’t be able to swim again. Once again, she proved them wrong.

“She had a mindset of ‘I have 48 gold medals, I’m winning that 50th.'” Christa continued. “But her shoulder just wasn’t quite the same.”

After a gruelling rehabilitation period, the athlete returned to pass that 50 gold medal mark, and retired from the sport on her terms.

Her hometown of Elk Grove, California awarded her the key to the city for her accomplishments.

Karissa, pictured in the middle, has been raising funds for law enforcement officers.
Picture by Kelley L Cox

Raising money for law enforcement

Trinchera was an integral part of her community on several levels.

In 2013, her close friend and police officer Kevin Tonn was killed while on duty.

As a result, Karissa started the Athletes for Officers Foundation, which helps Special Olympic athletes give back to law enforcement officers in their time of need. The funds raised so far have gone towards extra bulletproof vests for police officers, and a K-9 dog for the Stockton Police Department among other initiatives.

In a truly heart-warming moment, Karissa presented her 53rd Special Olympics gold medal to another officer that was wounded while on duty.

A new sporting challenge

Getting back on the horse seems an appropriate motto for Trinchera’s life. Even more after her latest sporting challenge: competing at the Special Olympics on horseback.

She moved to Idaho in June 2021 and, having worked with horses before, knew that equestrian would be a lot less taxing on her shoulder than most other sports.

Another huge draw to the sport is her trusty steed Kodiak, who is experiencing a comeback story of his own.

After finding fame as an accomplished race horse, Kodiak suffered what many thought was a career-ending tendon tear in his hind leg.

But after a long rehabilitation, Karissa’s mum leased him for her daughter, and the stallion made the long journey over from Ireland. Their synergy was clear from the off, and they have been inseparable ever since.

Karissa Trinchera, pictured in the middle.

There is just one snag. Equestrian sports are not currently on the Special Olympics programme.

Trinchera is already working on getting that changed, and has a back-up plan too.

“If Special Olympics won’t allow equestrian (events) in their games, she’s going to do the real ones,” Christa said.

Karissa is working to perform in her first equestrian show in Boise this May — not with other individuals with special needs, but with anyone who qualifies.

Many believe that getting equestrian sports included is too big a jump for even Kodiak to overcome.

But we all know what happens when people tell Karissa something can’t be done.