Tony Russo and Gino Gratalo haven’t been playing bocce ball with each other for very long. They’ve been friends for much longer. Recently, however, the duo took their talents to the Special Olympics.
At the annual Pennsylvania Special Olympics Fall Festival held at Villanova University in late November, Russo and Gratalo’s bocce prowess came to the forefront. The duo, both graduates of Pittston Area, took home gold in the Division 4 Bocce Ball event. The two are involved with the sport through Special Olympics Luzerne County.
“It was great, man,” said Gratalo, 41 of Avoca. “I’ve been down there lots of times. It’s been great, especially going with Tony. Hopefully we can do it again.”
The duo beat Lancaster County in the championship to claim gold. They were down a few games in the final. However, the duo remained calm and pressed forward.
“The first game we blew them out,” Russo said. “We had to come back and win.”
Gratalo said he told Russo they have to be patient and the win will come to them.
“We had to stay patient,” Gratalo said. “Some people there bounce the ball and throw it too hard. We both have a style and just get it rolling soft.”
During the three-day event, students from Villanova and Temple universities volunteer for the athletes. The Olympians were treated to opening ceremonies and a few dances to meet new people. Both said they enjoyed seeing other people and making new friends.
“I loved it,” said Russo, who is 33 and lives in Pittston. “It was fun. They had a dance for us and the students were great helping out.”
For the past five years, Russo has been an assistant coach for the Pittston Junior Patriots. His family is no stranger to bocce ball. His dad plays in the Yatesville Bocce League. That’s how Russo said he got hooked.
This was Russo’s fifth Special Olympics medal and his third gold medal.
Gratalo is well-known around the Greater Pittston area for his prowess in the Special Olympics. He plays for the Victory Sports League once baseball season rolls around and routinely hits home runs at the Pittston Township Little League field.
For the past 12 years, Gratalo has been working at Redner’s Warehouse Markets on the bypass in Pittston Township. In 2014, Gratalo was the first Special Olympian from Luzerne Country to go the Special Olympics National Games in nearly a decade, which were held in Princeton, New Jersey.
Also playing bocce, Gratalo won the National Championship in New Jersey. In all, Gratalo has won 31 Special Olympic medals with the majority of them being gold.
“He’s the best player I’ve ever seen,” Russo said of Gratalo.
The duo is coached by Art Jump. Together, they hope to continue to win gold medals.
Reach Nick Wagner at 570-991-6406 or on Twitter @Dispatch_Nick