From Chapel Hill to the World Games

On July 25, Tim Taft, MD, will be on the field at the Los Angeles Coliseum for the Opening Ceremonies of the Special Olympics World Games. It’s a big stage. An iconic venue. First Lady Michelle Obama is expected to be in attendance. Stevie Wonder will perform. But, in a career that spans four decades, Taft, Max N. Novich Professor of Orthopaedics, is used to big stages and iconic venues.

Tim Taft, MD (center with torch), prepares to lead a team from UNC Orthopaedics in the Special Olympics Unified Torch Relay
The UNC Orthopaedics team was joined by Special Olympian Connor Williamson when they participated in the Special Olympics Unified Torch Relay in June

By Jamie Williams, jamie.williams@unchealth.unc.edu

His work with UNC as team physician for varsity athletics has taken him to multiple Final Fours. He served as Medical Director for Track and Field at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta as well as several world championships and the Pan Am Games. But, he says the last several years he has spent working closely with Special Olympics has been an especially rewarding experience.

“Special Olympics athletes are incredibly dedicated, but always extremely happy and grateful,” Taft said. “In many ways, this work is more fun than anything I’ve done.”

In Los Angeles Taft will serve as Medical Director for the Special Olympics USA Team. In this role he’ll oversee a medical staff charged with making certain that 344 Special Olympians are capable of performing at their peak throughout the nine-day event as they compete in 25 sports against athletes from 176 other countries.

Taft’s preparation for games began months ago.

One of his major roles is reviewing pre-participation forms and physicals for all athletes.

“We’re looking through the records to make sure that the athletes are capable of performing their best,” Taft said. “And of course things come up, athletes have surgery, they get sick, we have to keep on top of all of that.”

He attended a training camp held in Indianapolis. The camp was the first time all the athletes were together in one place.

“For certain sports like softball or volleyball, athletes will train as teams,” Taft explains. “But for others like golf or swimming, the athletes are coming from all over the country. It is always a great experience to see everyone begin to get to know each other and build camaraderie as the team that’s going to represent our country.”

He has also worked to prepare a medical staff of three physicians and three athletic trainers who will join him in Los Angeles. His aim in selecting the staff, he said, combines a desire for racial, geographic and gender diversity with his hope of finding people who will want to continue serving Special Olympics after this World Games.

That was certainly Taft’s experience.

His involvement with the Special Olympics goes back to 1999, when the World Games were held in the Triangle.

“They were planning the games and I suppose got wind of what I do here at UNC,” Taft said humbly. “They asked if I’d be interested in serving as Medical Director and I agreed.”

From those games in the Triangle, Taft’s involvement has only grown. He has served in multiple leadership roles with the organization both in North Carolina and internationally. With Special Olympics North Carolina, he has served terms as both Chair and Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors. He currently serves as the North American representative on the Special Olympics Medical Advisory Committee, a seven-member board with a representative from each continent.

“He’s very much a behind-the-scenes, unsung hero,” said Keith Fishburne, president and CEO of Special Olympics North Carolina. “His medical background is obviously impressive and he’s just always been a really reliable person that we can count on. We’re honored to work with someone of his caliber.”

Los Angeles will be his third time serving as medical director at the World Games, previously serving at the 2011 Summer Games in Athens, Greece, and the 2013 Winter Games in Pyeongchang South Korea.

Taft said he expects the level of competition to be high, but knows from experience that no matter the outcome, the athletes will relish the experience.

“The events are competitive and the athletes definitely want to win,” he said. “But, no matter what, they’ll come up afterwards and give you a hug or a high five, which is just incredibly gratifying.”

He laughs recalling an incident that perfectly illustrates the positive attitude of the Special Olympians.

“Several years ago, I was at the USA games in Iowa, and North Carolina’s soccer team – who had been expected to do very well – ended up with the bronze medal. After the game, I remember the team running around the field, gleefully shouting ‘we’re number three, we’re number three.’ Contrast that with a flight I’d been on a few months previous with the UNC men’s basketball team who had been defeated in the Final Four. No one was saying ‘we’re number three.’”

“It’s just a different mindset,” Taft said. “And in the end, third in the country is pretty darn good.”

This year, the road to the World Games in Los Angeles literally went through Chapel Hill. In early June, Taft was joined by several staff members from the UNC Department of Orthopaedics as runners in the Unified Torch Relay across America. The Department’s fundraising efforts, spearheaded by Taft and Abby Hardinger, Orthopaedic’s Administrative Support Associate, had landed the group a premium leg on the relay route through Chapel Hill.

“We set a goal of raising $3,000 and have exceeded that,” Hardinger said. “We were able to just through our department without having to use any outside resources. I’m very proud of that.”

The final fundraising tally was more than $3,500, the third highest team fundraising total in North Carolina.

Joining the team for the relay in June was Connor Williamson, a Special Olympian who is the son of Orthopaedics nurse Darcy Williamson, RN. As the team stood in front of Wilson Library, they laughed and posed for group photos. In a nod to their day jobs, the group wore Carolina blue casts and slings. After a few moments, another relay group came across Polk Place. The two teams greeted each other warmly, the flame was exchanged, and Taft and his colleagues set off towards Kenan Memorial Stadium to complete their route, passing the flame on to another team on its way to Los Angeles where it will be lit inside the Coliseum.

As Taft joins the team on the field for the Opening Ceremonies, he’ll have time to both reflect on the spectacle and look forward to a week of competition.

“The motto of Special Olympics is ‘Let me win, but if I can’t, let me be brave in the attempt,’” Taft said. “This is such an important outlet for these athletes, and I’m proud to play a part in their success.”

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