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Hillsborough woman aims for Paralympics after pellet gun, knife attack

Paralyzed by an ex-boyfriend in 2019, Tracy Otto of Plant City found an outlet and a purpose in archery.
 
Tracy Otto pauses during an archery practice session at All People's Life Center in Tampa in January. Otto, 27, was paralyzed from the chest down when an ex-boyfriend attacked her in 2019. She got into archery after the attack and is now aiming to compete in the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.
Tracy Otto pauses during an archery practice session at All People's Life Center in Tampa in January. Otto, 27, was paralyzed from the chest down when an ex-boyfriend attacked her in 2019. She got into archery after the attack and is now aiming to compete in the 2024 Paralympics in Paris. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published March 30, 2023|Updated March 30, 2023

Editor’s note: This story includes discussions of domestic violence and suicide. If you need help, see resources at the end of the story.

TAMPA — Tracy Otto raised her bow and fixed her only eye on a target about 80 feet away. In her mouth, she held a trigger that would release the arrow when she bit down.

“You ready to throw some arrows?” Otto’s boyfriend, Rick Riessle, asked after helping her set up for this practice session one recent sunny day.

Shooting arrows from a wheelchair in a field at the All People’s Life Center in Tampa wasn’t where Otto thought she’d be four years ago. She was in her early 20s then, a University of Tampa student and aspiring fitness model. She and Riessle had just started dating.

But one fall night in 2019, a vicious attack changed everything.

As the couple navigated the aftermath, archery became a lifeline. Otto set an ambitious goal: the 2024 Paralympics.

Otto relished the challenge of the niche sport and bonded with other archers who understood the trial-and-error process she faced to compete at the top level.

And she got hooked on that moment when she takes aim at the target and shoots. In those liberating seconds, there isn’t time for thoughts about her injuries or the track her life might have taken.

Now, qualifying tournaments for the Paralympics were approaching.

She bit down and let the arrow fly.

Tracy Otto takes aim during a practice session at All People's Life Center in Tampa. Just before she releases the arrow, “I’m not thinking about my disability, I’m not thinking about my injuries, I’m not thinking about 'How am I going to do this, how am I going to make this happen?’" she said. "In that moment, it’s happening and I’m doing it.”
Tracy Otto takes aim during a practice session at All People's Life Center in Tampa. Just before she releases the arrow, “I’m not thinking about my disability, I’m not thinking about my injuries, I’m not thinking about 'How am I going to do this, how am I going to make this happen?’" she said. "In that moment, it’s happening and I’m doing it.” [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

“If it’s not me, it’s nobody”

Born and raised in the Chicago area, Otto moved to Florida to attend the University of Tampa. She’d met Francpiero Del Medico in 2017. By summer of 2018, they were renting a house in Riverview. Otto was taking classes to enter the pre-med program.

She was proud of her body, peppering her social media accounts with photos showing progress made in the gym along with motivational captions and hashtags. In September 2019, one of her last Facebook posts before the attack featured before-and-after mirror selfies.

By then, the relationship with Del Medico had taken a turn. A month earlier, he’d smashed her phone during an argument and threw her across a room, court records show. Del Medico was arrested but Otto, feeling pressured by one of Del Medico’s relatives, decided not to pursue the charge. But she knew the relationship was over.

She met Riessle, who was living in Chicago at the time, at a celebration of life in Tampa where Otto was bartending. They hit it off and stayed in touch.

Otto broke up with Del Medico in the fall of that year, changing the locks after he moved out. But when Otto ran into a dog-sitting emergency, she had to call Del Medico, who got a house key from a friend who couldn’t keep the dogs.

He was supposed to leave the key in the mailbox.

Before the attack that left her paralyzed, Tracy Otto posted on social media photos of herself in the gym like this one from February 2017.
Before the attack that left her paralyzed, Tracy Otto posted on social media photos of herself in the gym like this one from February 2017. [ Facebook ]

Soon after, on Oct. 24, Otto and Riessle had a friend over for dinner, then fell asleep watching “American Horror Story.”

A Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office investigation would find that Del Medico went to the house about 11 p.m., looked through a window and saw Otto and Riessle in bed. Del Medico went to a Walmart, where he bought a pellet gun that resembled a revolver. He returned about 1:30 a.m. and, armed with the pellet gun and a knife, broke in with the key he’d kept.

Otto and Riessle remember waking to a flashlight in their faces and Del Medico screaming at them to get out of bed. Del Medico punched Otto and, when Riessle lunged for him, Del Medico put the pellet gun in his face and pulled the trigger.

Riessle fell, realized he’d been shot with a pellet gun, then sat up and felt what he thought was a punch in the back. Blood poured from his mouth. Del Medico had stabbed him, puncturing a lung.

Riessle lost consciousness. When he came to, Del Medico shot him in the head, knocking him out again.

Otto was conscious when Del Medico sexually assaulted her with the pellet gun, pulling the trigger as he did. She remembers what he shouted at her: “If it’s not me, it’s nobody.”

Francpiero Del Medico, then 30, is pictured in a booking photo taken on Oct. 24, 2019, after he attacked ex-girlfriend Tracy Otto and Rick Riessle, a man Otto had just started dating.
Francpiero Del Medico, then 30, is pictured in a booking photo taken on Oct. 24, 2019, after he attacked ex-girlfriend Tracy Otto and Rick Riessle, a man Otto had just started dating. [ Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office ]

Del Medico shot Otto with the pellet gun five times. One pellet so severely damaged her left eye, surgeons had to remove it. He shot a pellet down her throat. Then he stabbed her in the back of the neck.

Otto and Riessle remember that Del Medico yelled that he was going to kill both of them, then kill himself or call the police. He decided on the second option, which the couple believes is why they survived. He dialed 911 and reported what he’d done.

Riessle came to and heard Del Medico on the phone and Otto gasping. Then she stopped breathing. Del Medico left the room. Deputies rushed in. Paramedics took Otto and Riessle to Tampa General Hospital.

The next day, the Tampa Bay Times published a story with a horrific headline: “Riverview man sexually assaulted woman with pellet gun. She may never walk again.”

“She’s got this”

Otto was intubated and dropped in and out of consciousness over the next few days.

Doctors told her she had a “complete” spinal cord injury, which meant permanent damage. Del Medico had plunged the knife between her vertebrae. She was paralyzed from the chest down, with limited use of her arms and hands.

She contemplated suicide. But a childhood memory with her father kept surfacing.

“He told me that Ottos are doers, not quitters, and that has always kind of stuck with me,” Otto, now 27, said in a recent interview at All People’s Life Center as Riessle sat beside her.

Rick Riessle visits with Tracy Otto in Tampa General Hospital after they were admitted for injuries inflicted by Otto's ex-boyfriend during an attack in Riverview in October 2019.
Rick Riessle visits with Tracy Otto in Tampa General Hospital after they were admitted for injuries inflicted by Otto's ex-boyfriend during an attack in Riverview in October 2019. [ Courtesy Tracy Otto ]

She would need 24-hour care, and the months that followed would reveal Otto’s support system. Her mother died when Otto was 10. Her father, who is also disabled, lives in Chicago.

After a couple of weeks at Tampa General, Otto spent a month at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, a renowned rehabilitation hospital in Chicago that provides specialized treatment for spinal cord injuries. One morning, Riessle began preparing Otto’s breakfast. They’d been arguing and Otto grumpily insisted she could do it herself, but she struggled to open the cereal, pour the milk and pick up a spoon.

Finally, she raised a spoonful to her mouth and took a bite. A smile spread across her face.

“That smile was like, she’s got this,” Riessle, 42, recalled, his voice breaking and his eyes welling with tears.

Otto transferred to an assisted-living facility that Otto and Riessle said was ill-equipped to care for her. They decided to return to Florida. Riessle loaded up Otto’s Jeep and drove to Plant City, where a friend of Otto’s let them live rent-free.

Their relationship was still new. Otto and Riessle would always be bound by their shared trauma, but would they stay together? Should they?

“There is a sense of a burden, having to care for somebody with this level of injury. I knew that and I didn’t want him to have to deal with it, but he stepped up,” Otto said.

Otto and her boyfriend, Rick Riessle, who is an adaptive sports specialist at All People's Life Center in Tampa, share a moment at the center in January.
Otto and her boyfriend, Rick Riessle, who is an adaptive sports specialist at All People's Life Center in Tampa, share a moment at the center in January. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

She looked at Riessle and took his hand in hers.

“From the beginning, he’s always been very gracious and respectful and kind and caring and it just never really crossed your mind to leave or stop,” she said.

So why stay?

Her heart, Riessle replied. And he wanted to be there for her in a way no one else had stepped up to be.

“This life has not been easy, but oh my gosh, is it rewarding and fun, and look where we’re at,” he said.

“An incredible team”

Riessle was driving down Interstate 4 one day when the couple started talking about what Otto might do to occupy her time. Otto started searching on her phone and declared she would shoot archery, a sport she’d considered trying before the attack.

“I was like, ‘Your hands don’t work, but OK, we’ll figure it out, I guess,’” Riessle recalled, laughing.

They found All People’s Life Center, a county facility that specializes in serving people with disabilities. Archery is offered through the Adaptive Sports program based there.

The day Otto and Riessle first visited the center, Earl Brown was there with his son. Brown is the director of the county’s Pet Resource Center and was volunteering as head archery instructor. He suggested Otto try a method used by his son, who has mobility in one arm and draws the bowstring with his teeth.

She hit the target on her first shot.

“It lit her up and she became a girl on fire,” Brown recalled.

Brown built a shoulder release incorporating a bite mechanism fashioned out of a camera shutter cable — a system fabricated and donated by a nonprofit company called GX4 Adaptive Archery — to release the arrow.

“She pushes herself to go to new limits and to pull herself up out of the ashes of her past and make something of herself, “ Brown said. “She and Rick have been an incredible team. Her challenges are their challenges.”

Riessle helps Otto with her bow during a practice session at All People's Life Center in Tampa.
Riessle helps Otto with her bow during a practice session at All People's Life Center in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

After volunteering at All People’s Center for a while, Riessle got a job there as an adaptive sports specialist.

After so much uncertainty, he finally felt that they would be OK.

“This place saved both of our lives,” he said.

40-year sentence

As Otto and Riessle adapted to their new lives, Del Medico’s court case moved slowly through the justice system. In January, he pleaded guilty to seven charges, including two counts of attempted first-degree murder.

The Jan. 11 sentencing hearing was the first time she and Riessle saw Del Medico in person since the attack. Otto rolled up to the lectern, took a deep breath and spoke into the microphone. She told Del Medico that she would do what he couldn’t when they broke up: let go. She said she would help as many people as she could. She told him she forgave him.

Del Medico never looked at her and didn’t speak.

Circuit Judge Christine Marlewski approved the plea agreement and sentenced Del Medico to 40 years in prison followed by 10 years of probation. He was required to register as a sexual predator.

Otto watched as deputies took Del Medico’s fingerprints and led him away.

Trial and error

A stiff breeze blew across a field at All People’s Center one day in late January as Otto and Riessle set up for a practice shoot. Her coach Doug Godfrey, a retired U.S. Marine Corps gunnery sergeant paralyzed in a recreational scuba diving accident, watched from his wheelchair.

When Godfrey met Otto, he asked if she was shooting recreationally.

“She was like, ‘Oh, no, I’m going to the Paralympics,’” he said, laughing. “I was like, ‘Fair enough.’”

Otto shoots during a practice session at All People's Life Center as her coach Doug Godfrey watches.
Otto shoots during a practice session at All People's Life Center as her coach Doug Godfrey watches. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

This day, Otto was testing new equipment. Lia Coryell, a two-time Paralympian and last year’s World Para Archery champion, who had become a friend and mentor to Otto, had recently given her a bow.

Otto was also trying a new system, which was designed, fabricated and donated by GX4 Adaptive Archery, to draw the arrow. A hook on a strap around her wrist attaches to the bow. To draw, she extends her left arm, bends her right wrist and pulls with her bicep and shoulder muscles. The camera shutter cable extends from the wrist strap to the bite trigger mechanism and clips to the brim of her ball cap.

“We’ve had a whole team across the country working on the adaptations for me,” Otto said. “It’s a lot of trial and error, lots of learning.”

She started shooting. It had been a while since she’d practiced, and she was getting used to the equipment, so the arrows were landing outside the yellow, inner circle of the target.

Otto has two main steps ahead of the Paralympics. She has to score high enough in a series of upcoming domestic competitions to have her expenses covered to travel with Team USA to competitions in the Czech Republic and Chile. Both are qualifying tournaments for the Paralympics, which will be held in Paris in August 2024.

One of the stickers on the back of Otto's wheelchair is the butterfly logo for her Metamorphosis Apparel business.
One of the stickers on the back of Otto's wheelchair is the butterfly logo for her Metamorphosis Apparel business. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

But the funding won’t cover the travel costs for Riessle, who is her full-time caregiver and “arrow agent” at competitions. They’re seeking grants and holding fundraisers.

Along with her Paralympic goals, Otto has worked to earn her associate degree from Hillsborough Community College and get a business off the ground. After her injury, she couldn’t find a pair of leggings that were easy to get on and still looked good, so she and Riessle began work on their own design. They hope to start production soon and develop more pieces as part of her Metamorphosis Apparel line.

Otto has realized her decision to keep going wasn’t just for her own sake.

“Regardless if I’m aware of it or not, this has to help somebody somewhere and change somebody’s life,” she said. “I can’t let it go to waste.”

She hopes people in abusive relationships take something from her story. She believes if she had moved forward with the first battery case against Del Medico, when he broke her phone, she wouldn’t be paralyzed today. Trust your instincts, she said, and listen to people who have your best interests at heart.

Near the end of the practice session, Otto took another shot. The arrow hit just inside the yellow ring.

She pumped her fist. It wasn’t a bullseye, but it was progress, and that was worth celebrating.

Otto smiles during a practice session at All People's Life Center in Tampa.
Otto smiles during a practice session at All People's Life Center in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with correct information about the role of GX4 Adaptive Archery in developing and providing Otto’s equipment.

How to get help

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or chat with someone online at 988lifeline.org.

If you are in immediate danger from domestic violence, call 911. The Florida Coalition of Domestic Violence can be reached at 800-500-1119. There are local agencies in the Tampa Bay area to reach out to for help.

In Hillsborough County, you can call or text The Spring of Tampa Bay’s 24-hour crisis line at 813-247-7233 or visit online at thespring.org.

In Pinellas County, you can call the Community Action Stops Abuse 24-hour hotline at 727-895-4912, text casa-stpete.org/chat or visit casapinellas.org.

In Pasco County, you can contact Sunrise of Pasco County at its 24-hour hotline at 888-668-7273 or 352-521-3120, or go online at sunrisepasco.org.