By Kelsey Horton
Special to GoHolyCross.com
Senior Mike Walker (Monson, Mass.) is the epitome of a leader in sports. In October he was one of three Holy Cross athletes to earn the inaugural "Leader of Distinction" award based on the evaluations of his coaches and teammates. This is his second year as a captain of the men's rowing team and second year as a representative in the Holy Cross Leadership Academy. But his leadership doesn't stop there. Every Sunday, you can find Walker volunteering for HC Goes Unified (Special Olympics Holy Cross).
HC Goes Unified invites Special Olympics athletes on campus to play sports with Holy Cross students. While Unified programs are growing across the country, Holy Cross is one of the rare few at the collegiate level. The service organization hosts three recreational leagues: Unified Soccer in the fall, Unified Swimming in the winter and Unified Basketball in the spring. The club started in the Fall of 2010 and quickly gained popularity on campus. There have been roughly 400 participants in total, including Holy Cross students, faculty, staff, the Special Olympic athletes and their families.
"In my first two years at Holy Cross, I searched for a service activity that truly excited me," said Walker. "Then I was introduced to HC Goes Unified. I instantly loved interacting with the athletes and have been part of the program ever since."
Walker, a former basketball and soccer player in high school has enjoyed the opportunity to pick those sports back up again. However, Walker acknowledges that the real fun has nothing to do with sports but his relationships with the other athletes. "My favorite part about HC Goes Unified is not playing the sports with the athletes, but simply talking to them about their week in school, their family and other sports they are playing" said Walker. "It is clear that the athletes look up to us as role models, like any middle or high school kid would, and coming to Holy Cross every Sunday makes their week."
"Mike shows up at every event and truly lights up the faces of so many of the athletes," said Ann Zelesky, Holy Cross' Associate Athletic Director. "Being a witness to what goes on during the games, it is truly evident to me that this is also the highlight of his week." In addition to working in the athletic department, Zelesky has also taken on the responsibility as supervisor for HC Goes Unified. "When I was asked to serve as advisor two years ago, I never envisioned how amazing this experience would be. The interactions between Holy Cross students and the Special Olympics athletes, while competing in soccer, basketball and swimming, is truly amazing. The program gives the athletes an opportunity to experience what it is like to be on a college campus and compete with and against Holy Cross students. It has certainly been a rewarding experience for all those involved in the program, and the Special Olympics athletes."
While Walker recognizes how much of a difference he and the other volunteers are making, it is apparent that the athletes are also making an impact on him. "Seeing how much the athletes love playing sports is truly an inspiration and serves as a constant reminder to have fun and love what you do, no matter what that may be in life," said Walker. "They have such a great love for the game and they exude happiness while playing and running around. At times, training for rowing can be monotonous and exhausting, so I try to channel their enthusiasm and passion into my own weekly routine as captain of my team. They also made me realize that I have to do my best with what I have been given, whether on or off the water. There is no sense in complaining that I am not tall or strong enough for my sport, so I must maximize what I have in order to do the best I can. They have been a blessing in my life and I truly thank them for that."
Walker is taking his involvement even further by being a "plunger" in the 15th Annual Polar Plunge to benefit Special Olympics Massachusetts. The Polar Plunge is a fundraising event where participants take a mid-winter dip - yes in New England! So far, daring plungers like Walker have risen over $2.9 million for the Athletes of Special Olympics Massachusetts. All the money raised, goes directly back to the athletes. This year the Polar Plunge will be held on Saturday, February 23, 2013. Walker will be plunging at Revere Beach.
"I decided to participate in the Polar Plunge this year because I wanted to raise money and awareness for Special Olympics," said Walker. "As the captain of a varsity athletic team, I realized that I should take advantage of my platform to promote a great cause." He is hoping to raise a minimum of $500 and will be joined by 12 other HC Goes Unified members.
Walker's undeniable commitment to helping people with intellectual disabilities is truly inspiring. The gift of being able to play sports is something a varsity athlete might take for granted but not for Walker. He enjoys being able to share what he loves with people who don't have the same opportunities as him.
"I do it for the athletes. Being able to watch how happy they are when they score a goal or make a basket is the ultimate reward."
For more information or to donate to Walker's effort go here:
For more information on HC Goes Unified go here: