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Special Olympics Nebraska Athlete Takes on Capitol Hill Ahead of Sargent Shriver Global Messenger Term

It’s a busy morning in the nation’s Capitol on Tuesday, February 6. Throughout Washington D.C., Special Olympics athletes, Unified partners, and staff from 47 states and the District of Columbia are meeting with members of Congress to advocate for the continuance of funding for the movement’s life-changing work in education and health. Amidst the sea of red jackets, you’ll find the delegation from Special Olympics Nebraska, led by athletes Wyatt Spalding and Haley Waggoner, along with staff member Emma Slattery and CEO Carolyn Chamberlin.

Four people (3 women, 1 man) stand in front of the US Capitol for a photo. All are wearing red jackets with the Special Olympics logo on them.
Wyatt Spalding (second from left) joined Special Olympics Nebraska CEO Carolyn Chamberlin (left), staff member Emma Slattery and fellow athlete, Haley Waggoner (far right) in DC for the 2024 Special Olympics Capitol Hill Day advocacy efforts.

The small but fierce Nebraska delegation gathered within the walls of Representative Mike Flood’s office in the Cannon building for their first of four meetings. Speaking with one of his assistants, Wyatt shared a story about his childhood. “When I was 12 years old, I had a talk with my dad about why I couldn’t go out for my sixth-grade basketball team,” Wyatt’s powerful tone echoes in the office as he gives his speech. “I stood there, tears running down my face begging my dad to let me play. I thought about quitting sports.” With all that emotion built up, it was Special Olympics that changed the trajectory of Wyatt's life. Just when the meeting was ending and each person a part of the delegation filed into the lobby, Representative Flood made an appearance.

Wyatt was invited to pose for a picture in front of Representative Flood’s mural of Lincoln, Nebraska. But before he did, he shared his story once more. Immediately following his speech, Flood complimented Wyatt’s speaking abilities and mentioned he should be a “sports journalist.” It was a simple compliment, but one that meant the world to the Nebraskan. Along with his athletic achievements, he is also a sports nut when it comes to statistics and analysis of each game.

“I could tell he really wanted to hear my story, like he sat down and wanted to hear it,” Wyatt says with excitement in his voice. “He asked me a lot of questions and when I would look up from my paper, I could tell in his eyes he really cared about what I had to say.”

“That made me more confident in speaking and when you start talking about sports, I can just talk and talk forever,” he continues.

And it was like that throughout the day, in each meeting, that positive demeanor impacted each person he met.

Wyatt Spalding stands in front of a sign for Senator Ricketts office.
Spalding led several meetings with members of Congress, advocating for their continued support of Special Olympics's work in education and health.

“I think sometimes people make assumptions about someone with an intellectual disability that they can’t do very much,” Chamberlin says. “And yet when they see our athletes and they hear their story, and they see them compete or see them accomplish something I think they are surprised and then I think they are proud. They have a moment of growth and realization of what Special Olympics can really do in someone’s life.”

Wyatt got involved with Special Olympics in the seventh grade after not being able to play for the school’s sixth-grade basketball team with his twin brother. It’s because of those experiences that he is now in a leadership role to advocate on behalf of his fellow athletes.

It's a position he holds with pride.

Wyatt grew up in Fremont, Nebraska but now lives in Lincoln with his parents. He is college educated, earning a minor in coaching and took some business classes at Midland University. He plays multiple sports. He is now employed at Special Olympics Nebraska as a Program Associate. From early on, sports were a part of the relationship he had with his twin brother –who he is a minute older than—and his two older sisters. While Wyatt found that participating in traditional sports was an opportunity he did not often have, Special Olympics Unified Sports® opened up a door for him to train and compete along the people he loved the most, his brother and his best friend. They kept him on his toes and always held him accountable when playing a sport. It challenged him to be the best player he could be.

Two men wearing red basketball uniforms smile for a photo. They have their arms around each other and are wearing gold medals around their necks.
Brothers Wyatt (left) and Wes Spalding found an opportunity to compete together thanks to Special Olympics Unified Sports®.

“It was so much fun,” his brother Wes Spalding says about being a Unified partner. “We’ve never had the chance to play at such a high competitive level together as teammates [before Special Olympics].” The pair competed together in Orlando at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games in Unified basketball and earned 4th place. Wes says Wyatt is a “dog” on the court and says it’s fun to watch him showcase his skills and help his teammates showcase their skills, too.

While basketball was the sport that originally got him involved with Special Olympics, the sport he’s best at is tennis. While waiting to see Representative Flood, Wyatt started to talk about playing and how he likes the format of certain tournaments compared to others. In a meeting with Senator Deb Fischer, he talked about the difference between tennis and pickleball, going into detail about how the swings of the rackets are different but sharing that being good at one can usually translate to the other.

Last year, Wyatt participated in the Xperience tennis tournament that featured 30 athletes from 16 Special Olympics North America Programs, all competing at the highest level of abilities. The tournament was hosted at the Boar’s Head Resort in Charlottesville, Virginia, and after seven years of participating, he finally won gold. A feat he made sure to share while advocating on Capitol Hill, showcasing the perseverance, humility, and determination it takes an athlete to perform at the highest level relentlessly while chasing a dream.

Following Capitol Hill Day, Wyatt will take on an even bigger advocacy role as he was recently named a Sargent Shriver Global Messenger (SSGM). Ten athletes across all seven Special Olympics International Regions were selected to represent their fellow athletes on a global stage. Wyatt is the only athlete chosen from the United States.

He talks about taking on this new role saying he’s going to “go more into the personal side of what I’ve gone through in my life, it’s not always easy having a disability through medical conditions having to face adversity and you have to overcome it.
“I think Special Olympics taught me that and hopefully I can share that on a bigger stage,” he continues.

In the upcoming years, Wyatt will have opportunities to travel to World Games, USA Games, and various other events representing the organization and inclusive movement that gave him a second chance at loving sports. His voice, along with his words, will make a difference in millions of lives. “He’s a guy everyone wants to be around and will be someone that people will want to follow his lead with his messages and actions,” Wes says, proud of his brother.

It’s a full circle moment for the 28-year-old accomplished athlete who brings positive vibes and zero complaints to every situation, regardless of the obstacles he may face.

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