Living The Oath on a National Stage

Through his work with Special Olympics North Dakota, Michael Storandt would say that he isn’t volunteering. He’s doing something he loves.

Since coaching a youth basketball team as a junior in high school, the Moorhead, Minn., native and second-year medical student at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences has spent the past seven years working with the Special Olympics organization and its athletes. At UND, he’s been a trailblazer in developing competition for the collegiate age group.

This month, at his first trip to the USA Games, Storandt was bestowed the honor of reciting the Coaches’ Oath during the Opening Ceremony.

“I feel unbelievably fortunate to be able to coach Special Olympics,” Storandt said after being introduced by NBA Hall of Famer Gary Payton. “When I first got involved, I had no idea how big of an impact it would have on my life.”

Storandt shared the stage with athletic dignitaries and pop culture fixtures alike. The ceremony was broadcast live on ABC, and the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium in Seattle, Wash., was full of spectators and more than 4,000 athletes.

“It was amazing, and kind of nerve-wracking,” he said about briefly leading the ceremony. “There’s 20-30,000 people staring back at you, but it was a cool opportunity.

“It’s great because it represents what we’re doing in North Dakota. We’re often overlooked because we’re a smaller state, but our programs are phenomenal. We have great athletes and volunteers. People who run the North Dakota program have given so many years to building the community around athletes, so it’s great for North Dakota to get that recognition.”

Despite all of this experience and growth through his passion, Storandt knows people who were far more deserving to deliver the Coaches’ Oath.

“I was thrilled to find out I got to go to the Games, but being told about delivering the oath was something else,” he remarked. “It’s humbling. I’ve met people who have done this for 30 years who deserve the spotlight. There are so many who have given so much energy to this program and the athletes.”


‘Incredible coach’

Kathy Meagher, President/CEO of Special Olympics North Dakota, met Storandt when he was still an undergraduate student at UND, majoring in biology and honors. Now that he’s pursuing a medical degree from the School of Medicine & Health Sciences, she’s amazed how he finds the time to volunteer.

“Michael is an incredible volunteer coach,” she said. “His youth leadership is remarkable and it’s cool to see. Despite his hectic schedule, he’s developed a college club and is leading our flag football team at the national level.”

Meagher also indicated it’s something that runs in the family, as the Storandts show up at state competitions to volunteer on a regular basis.

“When I started, my sister said it was something to try,” Storandt said. “I realized how much I enjoyed it. You fall in love with the athletes and the people you work with. In Grand Forks, the Special Olympics community is tight knit and once you get to know them, you see them everywhere.”

He says that once he found that, and put the effort in, there was no way he could live without it.

“It’s that important to me,” he added.


Medical student and researcher

Now well into his second year of medical school, Storandt says the SMHS has exceeded his expectations. Long nights studying and challenging case studies aside, he says he’s getting more excited for his clinical rotations, which begin next year, and honing in on a specialization.

“At this point, I am very interested in hematology-oncology,” Storandt admitted. “My ultimate goal as a physician is to have the ability to interact with patients on a daily basis. With oncology, I’ll be able to work with patients dealing with a very difficult experience, and have the opportunity to help them cope with their situation, aiming to treat the total person, including not only their physical ailments, but additionally the emotions, concerns, and questions that accompany them.

msStorandt with SMHS dean Joshua Wynne

Storandt also recently finished up another summer of research in the laboratory with SMHS Assistant Professor of Biomedical Sciences Jamie Foster. In Foster’s lab, Storandt has been studying dopamine and its transporter protein DAT.

“Specifically, this summer I looked at the role of palmitoylation [the attachment of fatty acids to amino acids and other proteins] on the trafficking of DAT,” he explained. “This research is beneficial for my career in medicine for multiple reasons. It provides an understanding of how research is conducted in basic sciences and where the knowledge we have regarding cellular function comes from. Additionally, it teaches you how to address questions and problems, establishing a systematic method that answers the questions, while considering other variables that may contribute to an outcome. This type of thinking is essential when determining a patient’s diagnosis and the outcomes stemming from treatment.”


Unified effort

Away from the lab, Storandt coaches a Unified Flag Football team. In Special Olympics, “unified” refers to the team structure. Athletes, those with intellectual disabilities, share the field with partners, people of the same age group who don’t have intellectual disabilities.

On the flag football team, all four of the partners are UND students or recent graduates from the University. Storandt illustrated how unified sports such as flag football create a more inclusive environment.

“Having a Special Olympics college club brings college-aged people from the community, who have intellectual disabilities, to interact with college students,” he said. “Athletes go through an experience that integrates them into the local campus community.”

Developing such connections have been crucial to Storandt’s education, as there’s only so much to learn in the classroom.

“Instructors can’t force you to find these experiences,” he said. “There’s so much to learn at that age when you’re developing and finding something you’re passionate about. You learn how to interact, how to work with others – it teaches life lessons outside of class. And you’ll miss it if you don’t go out and seek it.”

When Storandt arrived on the scene, UND’s chapter of Special Olympics College Club was a fledgling program and the only SO College Club in North Dakota. Three years later, it has a presence on almost every North Dakota campus. He coaches flag football and youth basketball, but also plays as a partner in volleyball and soccer.


Meaningful experience

Storandt says that everything surrounding the 2018 USA Games made the week one of the greatest of his life.

“We’re all friends, out to do our best and play hard,” he said. “We had an absolute blast. We went to the Space Needle, went to Pike Place Market, found a place to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July. We made it a full experience.”

The flag football team went 0-6 during their national run, but Storandt said their style drew attention and praise.

“Despite losing, we played phenomenally,” he said. “The top football officials and coaches said we did it the right way. In some cases, teams brought in partners that took away from the athletes. On our team, we had everybody working together and playing a role. We’re proud to have done it ‘the right way.’”

When asked how his work with athletes relates to his path through medical school, Storandt pointed to the awareness it creates.

“One of the biggest things you learn as a physician is that you need to understand all components that contribute to a patient’s health,” he explained. “You need to understand the needs of those with intellectual disabilities. There are barriers to their health and well-being, and Special Olympics is eye-opening. People sometimes don’t care enough to take the time to get others what they need. That’s why it’s important for physicians to take that time.”

Though he has a lot of time to change his mind about his career, it’s almost certain Storandt’s work with Special Olympics will continue. He encourages anybody and everybody to come to a practice.

“Make the effort to meet our athletes and get to know them–you’ll come back,” he said. “It’s the easiest thing to get involved in, and once you’re there, you’ll stay. It’s just that meaningful of an experience.”

By Connor Murphy

Brian James Schill contributed to this article

Lead Photo Courtesy Kaia Watkins