As 13-year-old Harlan Waltz strapped into his snowboard for the first time ever, he had no idea that in 24 short hours, he would walk away with a gold medal in his new sport.
Waltz is an eighth-grader at Croft Middle School in the Metro-Nashville School District, where he is a member of the Area 1-Nashville Unified sports team. Under the direction of teachers Amy D’Angelo and Nicole Wolfe, Croft’s Unified team has seen tremendous growth recently, with Waltz as one of their star athletes.
“I've been coaching Special Olympics since 2004,” said D’Angelo. “But this is really our second year with Unified, and so we're kind of getting into it slowly. This year, Harlan came with us for Winter Games.”
Waltz is a big sports enthusiast, having tried just about every sport available to him.
“I do football, this year I did wrestling, but this is my first year doing wrestling,” said Waltz. “I would like to go back to the sport. I was doing basketball. Now I'm doing soccer.”
It came as no shock to Waltz’s teachers and friends then, that he found quick success at the Special Olympics Tennessee (SOTN) 2023 Winter Games.
“On Monday was training day,” recounted D’Angelo. “And that was first time that Harland had ever been on a snowboard first time ever, ever. So really intense training all day long. And then the next day was the competition.”
For most people, an entire day of training in a completely new sport would be exhausting and perhaps a little bit scary. However, Waltz isn’t like most people.
“It was fun, kind of hard, and then like, I just got the hang of it,” said Waltz.
Although he was the only student from Croft to attend the Winter Games this year, the future looks bright for his peers to follow in his footsteps.
Croft has had students competing in SOTN for years now, but their recent decision to join as a United sports team has brought about several positive changes.
Dedicated to promoting social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences, Unified Sports joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. It was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding.
In Unified Sports, teams are made up of people of similar age and ability, which makes practices more fun and games more challenging and exciting for all. Having sports in common is just one more way that preconceptions and false ideas are swept away.
“It's been really easy [to join]. You have different things you have to do throughout the year to be a Unified school,” said D’Angelo. “We had done them anyway. We just didn't know a unified title would fit in beautifully.”
Alongside their new role as a Unified school, Croft has integrated the Best Buddies system as well.
Waltz speaks highly of his buddy, Kevin, happy with the fact they have become good friends both inside and outside of school. From playing on the school football team together to hanging out and playing video games at home, the pair have found true friendship through the program.
As D’Angelo looks into the future of Croft Unified Sports, she is sad Waltz will soon have to part ways and go to high school, but she is optimistic about the opportunities the program will continue to provide for years to come.
“With the Unified budget, we're able to get extras,” said D’Angelo. “So they are supporting us. We do things, like we have vocational class, and so we make T-shirts for some of the different clubs in the school, and we have a Cricut. We needed a heat press and Unified said okay. You know, that's something that we do as a group. And then we have our best buddies, and we made our best buddy T-shirts. They supported us with that. So it's been really nice.”
Croft is just one of many schools joining the Unified sports program. Any teachers, coaches, administrators or parents interested in learning more and potentially starting their own chapter can visit the SOTN website to see what steps come next.