Kellis Unified Sports golf team members Sulivan Danielak-Kirberg and Patrick Fernandez represented the high school at the 2018 Special Olympics Austrian National Games and against some of the top competition in the world with great success.
“The boys did fantastic and were great ambassadors for the unified movement, our school community, as well as our state and country while competing in Austria (in June),” Kellis Unified Special Olympics coach Michael Wakeford said. “It was the experience of a lifetime and the boys played great.”
Kellis’ Special Olympics team manager Danielak-Kirberg and varsity golfer Fernandez, finished third in the top Gold Division to bring home the bronze medal after going up against hundreds of competitors.
“After the division round (Danielak-Kirberg and Fernandez) were put into the Gold Division,” Wakeford said. “They held a one-stroke lead going into Championship Sunday. After the final round, the boys took the bronze medal, finishing just three strokes behind the first-place team and two strokes behind the second-place team. We are very proud of the boys and their accomplishments in Austria.”
As one of the tallest students at Kellis, Danielak-Kirberg, who stands 7 feet 5 inches tall, has always stood out, but now he is standing out for his play in unified golf.
Unified Sports, in which players with and without intellectual disabilities train and compete on the same team, is designed to enable athletes to learn new sports, refine athletic skills, experience inclusion, socialize with peers, form new friendships and participate in their communities outside of traditional Special Olympics events.
Danielak-Kirberg, who is called “Sully” by his friends and teammates, is the varsity golf team’s manager and is one of the most dedicated members of the Unified team. He praises his coaches and Fernandez in making him get better at the sport.
“(Coach Wakeford) is a caring individual, and our (varsity) team is always there to help during practice or a match,” Danielak-Kirberg said.
Wakeford said Danielak-Kirberg has been an inspiration and grown immensely as a player in a short time.
“Sully was our (varsity golf) team manager this past season, and helped Patrick and his teammates win Kellis’ first section title in school history,” Wakeford said. “Sully took a liking to the game of golf and since has had clubs customized to begin working on his game.”
Danielak-Kirberg recalls the first time he met Fernandez and how much work they have put into the game he loves.
“I met (Fernandez) when I started managing the varsity golf team and at first, I was very quiet, but then I started socializing with the team,” Danielak-Kirberg said. “(Fernandez) asked how tall I was, and I told him, and then we started socializing a lot. He helped me a lot on the team, and I helped him, too. When we got invited to Austria, I was happy, and he was happy, and we started hanging out more at school, and then we started practicing together. Now, we are together all the time because of Austria.”
“Fernandez and Sully have been training since the fall and were thrilled when they were asked to travel to Austria to represent the United States in their national games,” Wakeford said.
Danielak-Kirberg added that while at Kellis, he doesn’t feel any different from other students and was excited about the opportunity to travel to Austria.
“All the players from our team always say hi to me on campus,” Danielak-Kirberg said. “I was looking forward to experiencing a new country and meeting other players and the opportunity to represent Kellis and Arizona.”
He added, “This is a sport for individuals with a disability and it allows me a chance to play and have a regular education student assist me. I am an athlete that has special needs and (Fernandez) helps me and wants to help and my school does not see the disability in any students, only the individual and my ability and our culture (at Kellis) is one of acceptance.”
Fernandez played three seasons on the Kellis varsity golf team, ranking as high as eighth during his sophomore season. He saw Sully for the first time and just connected at the beginning of the 2017 golf season.
“Sully and I really met at the beginning of golf season and I had never met him before that, but I have always seen him as the 7-foot kid around school,” Fernandez said. “Immediately, right off the bat, when I met him, I immediately knew that he was a kind, polite and down-to-earth individual who was just genuinely happy. I truly loved how positive Sully was and it was rare to not see a smile on his face.”
Wakeford said that while Fernandez is a team leader, he took Danielak-Kirberg under his wing and they grew into a top Unified team, as well as helping the varsity team last season.
“(Fernandez) is a leader on our golf team and really took Sully in from the beginning and they worked together all season long and learned and grew from one another,” Wakeford said. “Sully has set goals for himself since the beginning of August, and Fernandez, along with his teammates, have really taken Sully under their wing and helped him reach many of his goals. In turn, Sully’s growth, progress and strength when facing adversity and hardship has inspired the boys and propelled them to winning the first section title in Kellis mens golf history.”
Fernandez qualified for the 2017 Division II state tournament and shot a two-day combined 157 to finish 43rd out of 98 golfers. He said he gets more from his practices with Danielak-Kirberg when they both work on specific items; consistency was most important for them as a team.
“In order to achieve consistency, we need to have a good amount of repetition,” Fernandez said. “Sully and I want to be there for each other at all times during the alternate shot, and we want to contribute to a good score as much as possible. We have also been working on our mental game, as well, as we go on our practice rounds on the course.”
Fernandez said he was also honored to compete at the games in Austria, especially with one of the largest athletes at the event.
“Our expectations are to most importantly have fun, enjoy each other’s company, compete to further ourselves and the game, and embrace each other and the game of golf,” Fernandez said. “I just wanted to say how grateful I (was) for this opportunity, and how lucky I am to be spending the moment with Sully and coach Wakeford. It means a lot to me and there is no one else I’d go on this trip with.”
Kellis Unified sports success
Both Danielak-Kirberg and Fernandez expressed their excitement and why they participate in the Unified program, as well as the chance to travel to Austria.
“The director of Special Olympics heard about how good our Unified Sports program was at Kellis, so he asked coach Wakeford some questions about us,” Danielak-Kirberg said. “I think he must have liked what he heard because we got invited to go to Austria soon after that.”
After their success at the games in Austria, bringing back the bronze, both are now planning to travel to Seattle this summer for the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games, the national games for Special Olympics in the United States.
Wakeford, who has been at Kellis 12 years, said his father was a Special Olympics coach, as well, and that led him to coaching Unified Sports at Kellis to help the student athletes.
“He was my role model since getting out of college,” Wakeford said. “This offers students a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete for their state, sleep in a hotel, be independent, develop social skills and be able to work on those skills.”
He added that while he takes pride in his coaching, it is all about the student athletes he works with every day.
“I (was) completely honored and humbled by this opportunity to represent our state and country in Austria. I am also extremely proud of the boys,” Wakeford said. “I knew (Danielak-Kirberg and Fernandez) would represent us extremely well, and I was so delighted to have front-row seats to all their accomplishments. This is something that we will all remember and take pride in for the rest of our lives and was excited to embark on this adventure with these two young men. I couldn’t ask for two better ambassadors to showcase what we do at Kellis High School each and every day.”
While Fernandez graduated in the spring, Danielak-Kirberg has one more year and he said being part of the Unified Team is an honor because of the respect the student athletes receive.
“The Unified Team at Kellis is received so well, and all the students are always saying how proud of us they are, and no one bullies us,” Danielak-Kirberg said. “We have Spread the Word to End the Word week, and students all sign oaths that they will never say the ‘R-Word’ towards us and it works great, and no one ever says it. At every assembly, the Unified Sports gets a spotlight, and all of the students come out on the floor and do a dance we made up called the Cougarlude. This school is great at giving students with disabilities every opportunity that they could possibly have. It is awesome to be part of.”
Wakeford said Danielak-Kirberg is a huge part of all the teams’ success.
“Sully is a beloved member of our Kellis community and as a junior, stands taller than the rest (pun intended),” Wakeford said. “But, not just in stature, he is one of the most gentle, caring and kind human beings I have ever met. He is larger than life and he handles himself in such a way that is inspiring to all who watch. He has had many obstacles that he has battled through without missing a beat and he does not ever complain or make excuses.”