Claudio Battaglini, Ph.D., FACSM. Photographed at the Exercise Oncology Research Laboratory in Fetzer Hall on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. January 25, 2016. (Photo by Jon Gardiner)
Technically, he was trespassing, but Claudio Battaglini didn’t care.
It was a Saturday morning, the door was unlocked, and he had come on a mission to peek inside this glimmering new building on the campus of the University of Northern Colorado that, from a distance, “looked like a castle.”
He made it all way to the exercise physiology laboratory before Carole Schneider – the person who would change his life – spotted him and demanded to know what he was doing there.
In the span of a few minutes, Battaglini told her his story. As the performance coach for Brazil’s national triathlon team, he had come to the University of Colorado for high-altitude training, and a professor there offered him a scholarship to graduate school, if, in exchange, he would help coach the university’s triathlon club.
Battaglini said he was touring her building because a friend had told him that Northern Colorado’s kinesiology program, which studied the science of human movement, was another great program, similar to the master’s program he was about to enter.
As he talked, Battaglini saw the suspicion on her face melt away. And before he knew it, she had him in her office, sharing her story.
In 1996, she told him, a year after she had been diagnosed with cancer, she established the Rocky Mountain Cancer Rehabilitation Institute to test the possibility that exercise could help patients combat the debilitating effects of cancer treatments, including fatigue and muscle weakness.
“I will accept you into the program right now and find you a scholarship,” Schneider told him. “I need you here.”
“Look,” he told her, “I do not want to have anything to do with cancer. I’m only here because I want to be a sports coach and train athletes to be the best in the world. I want to be a scientist of the sport.”
No problem, she said.
Deal, he said.
Finding a calling
They both got more from each other than they had bargained for originally.
Battaglini is now an associate professor of Exercise and Sport Science at Carolina and a 2015 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award recipient. He earned his master’s degree in kinesiology, with emphasis in exercise physiology, in 1999.
Along the way, he discovered that helping world-class athletes reach peak performance was not his true calling after all. Helping people battle cancer was. But he needed Schneider to show him the way.
Soon after he became her student, Schneider asked him to develop an exercise program for his first cancer patient. “I didn’t want to do it, but I couldn’t say no,” Battaglini said. “I owed her so much.”
The woman had an aggressive form of brain cancer. “She came to meet me with her mom,” Battaglini recalled. “She was in her early 20s, the same as me. She looked like a ghost. Pale. No hair.”
He shook her hand and asked, ”So, what did the doctors
“They told me that I was going to die and die very quickly,” she said.
“What do you think when they told you you were going to die?” he asked.
“I thought, I am going to prove to them that I am not going to,” she told him, adding, “The doctors told me I had six months to live – and they told me that two months ago. Can we get started?”
Battaglini started her on a training regimen so rigorous that Schneider called him into her office to chew him out. “Look,” she said, “you are not training her to win a gold medal in the Olympics. You are just trying to improve the quality of her life until she goes.”
Battaglini eased up on her training regimen, and the woman kept getting stronger. The slow shuffle disappeared. Color returned to her face. Months passed and, to her doctors’ amazement, the cancer disappeared.
But the cancer returned with a vengeance two years later.
After the woman had surgery to remove a tumor the size of an orange, Battaglini went to visit her, bringing ice cream. “She took a scoop of ice cream and looked at me and said, ‘Thanks, Claudio,’ and then she was gone.”
The experience devastated him, Battaglini said, and he vowed never to put himself through anything like that again. But there was Schneider, telling him ‘OK, I have another patient. She’s stage III breast cancer.’”Claudio Battaglini, Ph.D., FACSM. Photographed at the Exercise Oncology Research Laboratory in Fetzer Hall on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. January 25, 2016. (Photo by Jon Gardiner)
Expanding mission at Carolina
Soon after he completed his doctorate in 2004, he got a call from Kevin Guskiewicz. Now the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Guskiewicz was then the chair of Carolina’s Department of Exercise and Sports Science.
Guskiewicz told him he had heard about his success helping cancer patients through exercise. How would he like to continue that work at Carolina?
During his visit to campus, Battaglini gave a lecture about his work at the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. At the end of his talk, Shelley Earp, the director of the center, came up to him, put his hand on Battaglini’s shoulder and said, “Kid, we need you here.”
Guskiewicz offered him the job on the drive to the airport, and he started that fall. In 2006, he established the Get REAL & HEEL Breast Cancer Rehabilitation Program that has served more than 500 women.
In 2011, Battaglini created the Integrative Exercise Oncology Laboratory on the main floor of Fetzer Hall to investigate all the possible effects of cancer and cancer treatments, including psychological conditions such as depression as well as cardiorespiratory and skeletal muscle function. In 2013, a bigger, better-equipped lab called the Exercise Oncology Research Laboratory opened in Fetzer basement.
Over the past 10 years, Battaglini has published more than 170 journal articles and scientific abstracts and three textbook chapters related to exercise oncology.
In 2010, he won the Tanner Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. And last year, he received a Massey.
The award means a great deal to him, Battaglini said, but his work brings intrinsic rewards that have proven to be far more satisfying that he could have imagined as a young man eager to show he could help athletes break world records and win Olympic medals.
To make the point, Battaglini held up a tiny pink dumbbell that “Miss Deb,” his second patient with the stage III breast cancer, gave him when she and her husband flew to Chapel Hill 11 years ago, for a visit.
“Miss Deb and all the other patients have taught me that the work I do isn’t about me. It’s about helping other people and giving them hope.”
Hope, he added, that is real.
“It’s about giving them the ability to better fight the disease and enjoy the best quality of life possible within the time they have. If I can help a mother who has kids live another week, so that they can have that time to spend with their family, that is what I need to do. That is what I am here for. That is what this is all about because every second matters.”
All these years later, he remains grateful to his cherished mentor, Carole Schneider and Cad Dennehy, his doctoral advisor, for helping him to see that.
“There is no question she was an angel who God put into my life,” Battaglini said of Schneider, who passed away July 30, 2013, after battling cancer for nearly 18 years. She was 63.
“She died happy,” Battaglini believes, because of the enduring legacy she left behind.
Job: associate professor, exercise and sports science; coordinator for the exercise physiology graduate specialization; director of the Exercise Oncology Research Laboratory; and director of Get REAL & HEEL Breast Cancer Research Program
UNC employee since: 2004
Interesting Facts: Battaglini discovered his talent for coaching teaching babies how to swim as a student at the Catholic University of Brasilia where he earned his bachelor’s degree in physical education in 1992. The experience led eventually to coaching a youth triathlon team that was so successful that Leandro Corrieri de Macedo, the 1991 world champion in the triathlon, asked to swim with his team. It was a Tuesday, Battaglini recalled, and he returned to swim with them again on Wednesday and again on Thursday, which was how long it took for Battaglini to work up the nerve to tell him how he could improve his technique. When de Macedo returned to practice on Friday, he asked Battaglini to be his coach. That role led him to competitions all over the world and to working with the national triathlon team that he eventually took to Boulder, Colorado, for training in 1997. The only coaching he does now is with his three children.
Excerpts from Massey nominations:
Ten colleagues endorsed Battaglini’s nomination, applauding his dedication, teamwork and esprit d’ corps. Among them was Loretta Muss, coordinator with the N.C. Cancer Hospital Patient and Advisory Board, who cited both his enthusiasm and knowledge of his field. “He knows it cold,” Muss wrote. “He loves his work and he has a passion for his patients and getting them healthy, healed and back
Wrote another, “Students and colleagues working alongside Claudio witness and model his extraordinary talent to motivate patients and care for them during this challenging time in their lives. He has left a significant impact on those with whom he works, and there is never a day that I don’t welcome his smiling face rushing down the hallway to share some exciting news about his program and staff. More importantly, I enjoy hearing the success stories about the patients who benefit from the program. I am convinced that, as he continues to collect research data on his patients, he and his team will make significant contributions to the field of oncology.”
Derek P. Galvin, the women’s gymnastics coach at Carolina since 1981, described Battaglini as “one of the most enthusiastic and inspirational faculty members I have been associated with” at Carolina. “His work and his personality are a glowing example of the good that emanates from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,”
By Gary Moss, University Gazette
Originally published by University Gazette: March 7, 2016