Keep Your Head Down and Have Fun
“Keep your head down, and if you see alligators, stay away.” Matthew Harrington, Special Olympics athlete from Sarasota County, Florida gives his golf advice straightforward and to the point – always with a huge smile. He loves the game of golf and it shows. Matt swung his first club when he was only four and growing up in Wausau, Wisconsin, where he participated in bowling, swimming and track before focusing solely on golf. His parents, both U.S. Navy veterans, started him with a toddler set of clubs, then a junior set, and now the advanced left-handed clubs he continues to use today!
Matt played his first 9-hole Special Olympics District Golf Tournament in Eau Claire, Wisconsin at age 21, winning the event and earning the blue ribbon. Was he nervous? Sure, but “I’m not at all nervous now” in tournament play, Matt said. Since that first competition, he and his family moved to Florida where Matt plays once or twice a week, and practices weekly in season with his coach and team. Improving his golf game, “takes lots of patience, lots of practice. Keeping my head down is the easiest part. Keeping track of my ball is the hardest part.”
Balance, Focus, Confidence
At the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games, Matt will play as a Level 4 golfer, competing in 9-hole individual stroke play. Matt’s dad, Jim, will caddie for him. “Dad tells me, ‘keep your head down,’ and helps me spot my ball.” Using a yellow ball helps, but remembering where it went is another thing. When Matt was in 5th grade, he had a terrible headache, then collapsed suddenly on the school playground. By complete coincidence, his mom was at the school that day for a meeting. “I’d never gone on the playground before that day, but I think God somehow meant me to be there,” said mom, Carolyn. “When Matthew collapsed, he wasn’t breathing, but when I told him to breathe, he would.” Tests revealed Matt had a cerebral artery aneurysm rupturing and bleeding at the base of his brain stem. He underwent an 11-hour complex microsurgery to clip the aneurysm, followed by a very long rehab with daily speech, occupational and physical therapies. He was unable to speak for 4 months. Speech complications, balance and coordination, difficulty processing problems, decreased concentration and short-term memory continue to be challenges. While Matt was in rehab, his piano teacher volunteered to work with him using the piano as therapy. Learning new skills was difficult, but amazingly, Matt could remember how to play his lessons from before the aneurysm, showing his long-term memory was intact. Today, Matt continues to play piano for fun. Playing golf helps a lot with balance and focus, and working at Publix as a bagger exercises both his memory and public speaking every day. “I get to see a lot of people. No two people are the same.”
When you watch Matt line up a shot and swing, you’ll see intense focus and strength. Ball off the right foot, head down, shoulders relaxed, smooth back swing and clean follow through. “What a nice shot,” he thinks when he hits a nice drive, his most consistent shot. Chipping and putting are where he puts in most of his work to reduce stroke count. While his trophy shelf is filled with of rainbow of ribbons, the gold medals are his cherished prize and goals. It’s no wonder movies such as Happy Gilmore and Field of Dreams are among his favorites. Overcoming adversity, sharing his enthusiasm for life, appreciation and gratitude for others, and helping build great things are some of his personal drivers.
Matt and his family continually express their thankfulness to Special Olympics, its programs, coaches, volunteers and community. “What warms our heart most is the huge number of volunteers who take time and make it their priority to be a part of Special Olympics,” said mom, Carolyn. His Sarasota coach, Carol Rahmoeller, was selected to serve as head golf coach for the Florida golf delegation at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games. “She’s a saint. So helpful to everyone,” said Matt.
Beyond athletics, Special Olympics has presented Matt opportunities to complete give speeches, make lifelong friends, travel, and advocate for other athletes. Matt is an athlete leader, co-chair of the Sarasota County Athlete Input Council, and a trained Global Messenger who helps create public awareness of the organization. Like so many other Special Olympics athletes, Matt has grown in confidence, health and abilities; set and achieved goals; expanded his friendships, community and vision; and overcome much to become the champion he is today.