Special Olympic Wisconsin and UW-Whitewater team up for the inaugural Athlete Leadership Academy

February 27, 2019 Blog

The 2019 UW-Whitewater Leadership Academy (photo courtesy of UW-Whitewater)

25 Special Olympic Wisconsin athletes paired with 25 University of Wisconsin-Whitewater student athletes on January 16 for the very first Athlete Leadership Academy. The athletes of both organizations spent the day listening to guest speakers, participating in workshops and engaging in hands-on activities meant to help all 50 athletes improve their leadership skills.

And the best part was that the whole experience was completely unified. Each Special Olympics athlete was paired with a student athlete from UW-Whitewater to work together, side-by-side, for the day.

According to the academy’s mission, “The Athlete Leadership Academy, formed through an equal partnership between Special Olympics Wisconsin and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, is founded on the premise that athletes are uniquely positioned to be leaders in their schools, workplaces, and communities. The purpose of the Athlete Leadership Academy is to support the development of leadership skills for athletes through the sharing of talents and by positioning them in inclusive situations so that they experience, appreciate, and learn to leverage individual strengths to benefit all.”

In August 2017, Elizabeth Watson and Judy Quigley from the UW-Whitewater Center for Students with Disabilities, approached Special Olympics Wisconsin with the idea of collaborating on an athlete leader camp to be held at UW-Whitewater targeting both UW-Whitewater student athletes and Special Olympics athletes who want to become better at their sports and also learn skills to be better athlete leaders. Through the inclusive planning team made up of UW-Whitewater faculty and staff and Special Olympics Wisconsin staff and volunteers, the idea soon evolved to be a hybrid of the existing Special Olympics Athlete Leadership programs and the UW-Whitewater Leadership Academy.

“The biggest thing I take away from what I learned today was that there isn’t just one type of leader. There’s many different types of leaders.” – Special Olympics Wisconsin athlete Matt Martino

In addition, this model included athlete voice at the core of the planning team. Special Olympics Wisconsin athlete leaders were invited to the table along with Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) members and SO College liaisons from UW-Whitewater. Much of the success of the academy can be credited to this collaboration. The group not only planned the event, but also recruited participants and served as trainers during the workshop. Thanks to their leadership, the event was a huge success and it helped set a model that will hopefully be shared with Special Olympics programs and SAACs across the country.

The academy began with an informal meet-and-greet where participants met their partners for the day, ate lunch together, and listened to inspirational words of encouragement from Coach Kevin Bullis, the head football coach for UW-Whitewater’s NCAA Division III powerhouse football team. The group then began a series of afternoon workshop sessions where they learned about leadership theory, personal development, physical development and identity development.

The leadership theory workshop demonstrated how different leaders can utilize different strategies and approaches to be effective leaders. The participants enjoyed learning about tranformational, transactional, servant, and authentic leadership styles and determining which styles they leaned toward. “The biggest thing I take away from what I learned today was that there isn’t just one type of leader. There’s many different types of leaders,” said Special Olympics Wisconsin athlete Matt Martino of the St. Coletta agency.

Special Olympics Wisconsin athlete Paul Woolfley talks about why his leadership style fits into the transformational category

The personal development workshop emphasized the importance of self-care, mindfulness, proper sleep, time management and other factors that contribute to personal success in athletics and in life. “It was a pretty good informational and educational experience,” said Special Olympics athlete Kail Martin of the Kenosha Special Olympics agency.

The identity development workshop included an emotional assessment that helped the participants tease out how they best create effective relationships. The exercise also let the group continue to build on the new relationships they had been making throughout the day. These connections were a highlight of the day for many. “I just really enjoyed getting to meet a bunch of new faces and getting to really make some connections with new people that I usually don’t make connections with,” said UW-Whitewater student athlete Taylor Ortiz.

Special Olympics Wisconsin athlete Judd Mack and his UW-Whitewater partner Nathaniel Tranel goof off for the camera during a session

The popular physical development workshop involved a warm-up using Special Olympics Wisconsin’s Fit 5 program and stations that incorporated balance, endurance, power and flexibility. After the warm-up, the participants had a blast running an obstacle course set up by UW-Whitewater’s ROTC program.

Even though this was a leadership academy, ultimately all the participants are still athletes with a competitive spirit. “I loved meeting new people and seeing everyone’s unique talents and abilities, just showing how everybody is still athletes at heart,” said UW-Whitewater student athlete Cameron Gidlow.

“It’s going to help me be a better leader because the more people you know, the better understanding of the world you have.” – UW-Whitewater student athlete Nathaniel Tranel

The athletes concluded their day by competing in a highly competitive Unified Basketball game followed by attending the UW-Whitewater men’s basketball game against UW-Oshkosh in Williams Center. The unified group was recognized on the court during halftime for their commitment to inclusion and the hard work they had done throughout the workshop toward that goal.

But it wasn’t their only special recognition during the day. In one of the afternoon sessions, the group was surprised by an impromptu visit by Dr. Cheryl Green, UW-Whitewater’s interim chancellor. Dr. Green observed part of a session and then spoke to the group about how excited and impressed she was by the program.

Trainer Deb Moore-Gruenloh talks with Special Olympics Wisconsin athlete Kail Martin and UW-Whitewater student athlete Mackenzie Serbousek during an exercise

Between Dr. Green’s visit, Coach Bullis’ opening remarks, and the countless people involved throughout the day, from lunch on up through the evening basketball game, the day truly showcased the community’s support for the inaugural Athlete Leadership Academy. And it was something that was not lost on the participants. “I really enjoyed seeing how many people from around campus and the community came out to support this event today. It’s really inspiring,” said UW-Whitewater student athlete Kristen Rauch.

Organizers from Special Olympics Wisconsin and UW-Whitewater were similarly excited by the overwhelming community support on display because they know how important inclusion is to leadership in 2019. UW-Whitewater student athlete Nathaniel Tranel summed it up nicely: “It’s (the Athlete Leadership Academy) going to help me be a better leader because the more people you know, the better understanding of the world you have.”


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