Speaking in detail, Nick DiAntonio remembers the moment he was first introduced to Special Olympics Massachusetts. Tagging along to track and field practice with his older brother, DiAntonio knew it was a chance to bond with his brother and record hours for the National Honor Society. But he quickly realized the type of impact he could make on his community.
He says he caught "the Special Olympics bug" while he continued to coach throughout high school and college. Fully invested, he made a deal with the local Special Olympics coordinator, Jennifer Walsh. "Jennifer Walsh kept saying to me and my buddy 'when you guys are done with college, you have to start a powerlifting team,'" DiAntonio says about the encounter.
So that's precisely what they did. Starting the powerlifting team in Milford back in 2013, DiAntonio says, "it's grown from having about five to six athletes to now having 16 to 20 athletes every year." He says, “it’s a pretty big program now,” with pride in his voice.
Supporting a team is something DiAntonio is very familiar with. In addition to coaching the Special Olympics Milford powerlifting team, DiAntonio teaches at Natick High School and is the defensive coordinator for varsity football and the head coach for the Unified track and field team.
"I have known him (Nick) for many, many years," Walsh says about DiAntonio being nominated for the 2020 SONA Outstanding Coach award. "I first met this young man when he started volunteering back in 2004 while attending middle school. He volunteered all through middle school, high school, college, and now while he raises a family."
"At every practice and competition, he helps athletes with intellectual disabilities find their strengths and abilities," she continues. "He brings enthusiasm, commitment and a positive attitude to each practice, event and competition. He motivates, inspires, and gives our athletes the skills and confidence through sports that have a lifetime effect."
DiAntonio’s ability to connect with each athlete individually and help them set goals for themselves stems from his athletic background. A high school Hall of Fame inductee, a 2008 wrestling state champion, and a Northeast-10 Male Scholar-Athlete of the Year in football, DiAntonio understands the type of commitment it takes to be successful. That type of commitment is evident in all aspects of life from the classroom where he teaches math to success on the field or with the weights.
"Coach DiAntonio demonstrates his passion for fostering inclusivity within our community at Natick High School, which sparked a realization that I want to go into the special education field," one of his students says. "Coach DiAntonio brings a ton of enthusiasm to every practice and meet, making Unified track and field a positive experience for all of the athletes and partners."
Another student adds, "he encourages hard work, kindness, and honesty and it has been a pleasure to have him as a coach. He is not only a coach but a friend. He is always checking in on his athletes and making sure everyone is in a good place."
DiAntonio’s recognition that a coach’s relationship with his athletes extends beyond the field of play is something he puts a great amount of emphasis on.
Pre-COVID, DiAntonio and his other coaches would meet up with their athletes and have a monthly guys’ night out. "We'd go to a Patriots preseason game; grab dinner and do some bowling," he says.
"We have a really special group of athletes and coaches in our powerlifting program,” he says, as he shares a story about the team showing up to the 2019 State Games in red, white, and blue parachute pants, along with a boombox and large sunglasses. DiAntonio expresses they love to take things seriously when competing, but shares how they always try to have fun, too. “I hope to get back to doing that once our athletes are all back,” he says about his hopes for the future.
During the pandemic, DiAntonio put together an eight-week virtual workout plan to keep his team active. He modified the program to fit everyone's needs.
“In the spring of 2020 we were fully virtual from school and sports, and we weren’t able to get together at all,” DiAntonio says. “We met with all the student-athletes who would have registered for Unified track and field every Tuesday and Thursday. We just talked and had a virtual get-together for all of our athletes.”
Amid all that, upper body, and lower body workouts along with ab workouts were shared, with Unified partners leading the way. “We had parents reach out and say that was the highlight of the week for their children,” DiAntonio says about parent reactions.
The first time DiAntonio was introduced to Special Olympics was the moment that set everything that followed into motion. He and his friend made a promise to Walsh, and they kept it. But they also did so much more.
They built a family within the Special Olympics community. Whether it's in a school setting or at Barbell 88 where they hold practice, each member of the team has one common goal: be the best athlete and person they can be.
But without DiAntonio catching the "bug" none of that might have ever happened.