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Exercise and sports have always been the life and work of Claudio Battaglini. A soccer star in his early years, then a world champion coach, he’s now using the power of exercise to fight cancer.


Exercise and sports have always been the life and work of Claudio Battaglini. A soccer star in his early years, then a world champion coach, he’s now using the power of exercise to fight cancer.

An athlete from birth

Born in Brazil, Claudio Battaglini has been an athlete his entire life. Claudio stood out as a soccer phenom and at a young age, he put college on hold and moved to Portugal to play professional “futebol.” After some time in the pros, he returned home to Brazil and began coaching.

Battaglini enrolled at the Universidade Católica de Brasília to study physical education and coaching. He went from athlete to coach in no time, establishing a triathlon club for local athletes. Before he knew it, his club was producing state-and national-champions. His coaching success caught the eye of Brazil’s top triathlete, Leandro Macedo. After a week of working out alongside Claudio’s young team, Macedo asked the much-younger Claudio to coach him. They went on to win the Pan-American games and medal at the World Triathlon Championships.

Entering America and Academia

In preparation for the triathlon world championships, Battaglini visited Colorado to work alongside sports scientists to study the biomechanics of his top athlete in an effort to improve his performance. While in town, he was approached by a professor at University of Colorado, who invited Claudio to give a talk to his athletes. After the talk, he offered Claudio a scholarship to study Exercise and Sports Science at UC Boulder. It was time to move to the United States.

Once familiar with the area, Battaglini decided to visit nearby Northern Colorado University – a university known for their Exercise and Physiology program. He wandered into the department’s building and fate took over – he met a woman named Dr. Carole Schneider. As luck would have it, Dr. Schneider was a national leader in the study of exercise oncology. She invited Claudio to join her as a researcher at Northern Colorado.

Battling cancer herself, Schneider founded an exercise rehabilitation center for patients with cancer called the Rocky Mountain Cancer Rehabilitation Institute – the first facility of its kind in the country. “I was one of the student founders of the center,” said Claudio. “But I didn’t want to do anything with cancer. My dream was to coach.” Little did he know, all of that was about to change.

Re-considering cancer

His last year as a Master’s student, Dr. Schneider presented him with a challenge: “I want you to train a cancer patient.” Claudio was reluctant, but his mentor persisted.

“She came in. She was very pale. She had gone through high doses of chemo – she had aggressive brain cancer. No hair. A bandana on her head,” he recalls. The patient, a young woman named Francine, informed him the doctors estimated she had four months to live. “But I’m not going to die,” she told Claudio. “I’m going to make it.” And so they began. He started studying – side effects of treatment, chemotherapy drugs, the physiology of her body in response to exercise – and they kept training. Francine lived two and a half years.

“Working with her and the other patients was a turning point in my career,” he says. “Going to the Olympics is great, winning a gold medal is great. But then what? All of this effort and energy just to win a gold medal?” He decided that his career would take a drastic change. He had found his calling. He was going to study cancer and exercise.

Get Real & Heel

In 2004, Battaglini came to UNC-Chapel Hill as a visiting assistant professor in the Exercise Physiology program. A fan of UNC for its athletics, academic reputation and success in cancer care and research, he was excited to make the move.

With UNC Lineberger support, he started right away, working with leukemia patients. He wanted to study how physical activity could work to alleviate patients’ symptoms, reduce recurrence and improve quality of life. Armed with exercise bands, a stationary bicycle and blood analysis tools, he went to work.

“We changed the way people look at physical activity in the hematology unit,” he remembers. “In the past, the patients were advised to stay in their room out of fear of infection. If you go in the unit today, everyone is moving.”

Seeking to provide patients not only with physical rehabilitation, but also with the emotional and psychological support, Battaglini helped establish the Get Real & Heel program. For the past nine years, patients have met together to exercise. The program has worked to reduce treatment complications, lessen disease recurrence, and improve the overall health and quality of life for cancer patients in North Carolina.

The success and spirit of the Get Real and Heel exercise oncology program is embodied by UNC Women’s Basketball Coach and leukemia survivor Sylvia Hatchell, who Battaglini trained during her treatment at UNC Lineberger. “She taught me a lot,” Battaglini says of Hatchell. “How to handle things differently in the context of disease and how she feels. There is no question that she was successful and continues to be.”

After coaching Olympic champions and professionals for almost two decades, Claudio Battaglini found that there was something much more precious and much more worthy of a fight than a gold medal – life.

Claudio Battaglini and his wife Becca have three children. They live in Durham.