"Whatever time I have I want to make the most of it," says Nicholas DiAntonio, who has been volunteering with Special Olympics since he was in the 7th grade
In the 8th grade, Nicholas DiAntonio walked onto the playground and saw a group of kids surrounding a student with Down syndrome.
“I remember he couldn’t get out of the circle and kids were calling him names,” DiAntonio, now a 29-year-old math teacher at Natick High School in Natick, Massachusetts, tells PEOPLE. “I immediately went over and pulled him out. I stayed with him and got a teacher.”
DiAntonio calls it a pivotal moment: “It was striking to me, at that point, that individuals with special needs aren’t able to stand up for themselves.”
He’s been volunteering with Special Olympics Massachusetts for the past 17 years. Coaching his special needs powerlifting team is his passion, he says.
“It’s infectious,” he says. “It makes you feel so good when you see the smiles on the faces of your athletes.”
When he was 5, DiAntonio’s father died of pancreatic cancer. A family physician told his mother that he and his older brother were going to grow up differently than they would had their father lived.
“My uncle, an orthopedic surgeon, said, ‘Maybe it’s not a negative. Maybe they’ll develop with much more empathy and compassion and care because they were forced to mature so quickly because they went through a difficult time,’ ” DiAntonio says. “Having to grow up quickly, having to deal with the awfulness of my father passing at age 5, I developed an empathy for all different people. I’ve always had a big heart. I see individuals with special needs — they’re craving attention, they just want to be one of the guys, they want to hang out. It spurs me to want to help.”
In middle school, he regularly ate lunch with special needs students, and in the 7th grade, DiAntonio started volunteering with Special Olympics. Originally, he was just tagging along when his older brother volunteered as part of a National Honor Society community service project. But DiAntonio continued volunteering through high school and college, and when he graduated from Assumption College, the young man co-founded Milford’s Special Olympics powerlifting team. Seven years later, he’s still coaching.
“We have one kid who routinely deadlifts well over 400 pounds. That’s a lot of weight,” DiAntonio says. “It breaks down so many stereotypes that people hold of people with intellectual disabilities.”
While earning his master’s degree in curriculum and instruction at Boston College, DiAntonio started a Special Olympics wrestling team that he coached for three years.
“He’s outstanding,” says Jennifer Walsh, coordinator of the Milford Special Olympics, who has known DiAntonio since he was in the 7th grade.
DiAntonio goes above and beyond for the teammates, Walsh says, running his own integrated powerlifting tournament, raising about $3,000 each year for his team and buying them cool uniforms.
“Nick wants the athletes to have the best of everything,” Walsh says. “He’s very motivating.”
For their recent competition, he bought the team American flag hammer pants and oversized sunglasses. They walked into the competition with boom boxes on their shoulders, blasting “Real American.”
“Nick stands out at competitions,” says Charles Hirsch, the director of development, brand and marketing for Special Olympics Massachusetts. “He gets the athletes excited. He brings them together as a team.”
At a recent competition, one of DiAntonio’s teammates, who has Down syndrome, hit a personal record — a 425-lb. squat.
“He bear-hugged me,” DiAntonio says. “I’m screaming. He’s screaming. Next thing I know, he has me lifted way up over his head.”
DiAntonio weighs 185 lbs., but “my lifter, Sam, is way stronger than I’ll ever be,” he says.
From January to June, Coach Nick picked up Matthew McNellage, 35, and drove him to practice every week. On other nights, DiAntonio takes Matthew and his teammates to the movies, dinner or bowling.
“He just brings the fun to everything they do,” says Tammy McNellage, Matthew’s mother.
Her son has been on Nick’s powerlifting team since it started, and he was also on his wrestling team, earning him the team nickname “Matty Muscles.”
“They’re all just having a good time,” says Tammy McNellage. “It’s not like you’re going to practice — you’re going to meet up with the guys. And Matthew doesn’t always have those opportunities. He considers it a guys’ night out.”
DiAntonio says he’s teaching his team life lessons about fitness, friendship and trust. He teaches technique, but also “mental toughness” and overcoming adversity.
“He takes Special Olympics coaching to the next level,” Hirsch says. “He really gets the most out of each athlete.”
Looking forward, DiAntonio tells PEOPLE he will never stop coaching his Special Olympics team.
“It’s just contagious,” says DiAntonio, who also coaches high school football, middle school wrestling and track. “It’s electric. I keep coming back. I tell Jen Walsh all the time, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, you can’t get rid of me, coaching-wise. I’ll keep coming back.”
A devout Roman Catholic, he’s been married for nearly three years to his wife Nicole, 28. At home in Franklin, Massachusetts, DiAntonio finds quality time with their 1-year-old son, Tyler.
“I take every minute I can to hug him and be around for him,” he says. “Even stuff as simple as when I go out to mow the lawn, I put him on my chest carrier and I take him with me.”
Their connection reminds him of his own father.
“I do think often about how young my dad was — he was 36 when I lost him, and I’m 29 now,” says DiAntonio. “I think about how that’s only seven years past what I am now.”
“You never know when your time is going to be up,” he adds. “Whatever time I have I want to make the most of it.”
DiAntonio loves playing at the beach and bonding with family at their home on Cape Cod. Reflecting on his blessings, the coach says he owes everything to his hero, his mother Mary, who comes to all his team’s matches to cheer him on.
“She is an incredible mother, having raised my brother and me on her own after the passing of my dad,” he says. “I couldn’t ask for a better role model. I learned much about hard work from watching what she did.”
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