Derek “Tank” Schottle dreams of racing in the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando.
But on Tuesday, his athletic fate suddenly seemed to slip further from his control. He was left asking for God’s intervention as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos came before a congressional subcommittee to defend a budget proposal that would eliminate all $17.6 million in federal funding for the Special Olympics.
“Man, I mean, that’s a tough one,” Schottle, 29, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “All I can do is pray for the Special Olympics."
The competition — started in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of President John F. Kennedy — is more than a set of sporting events.
It’s an international community, said Schottle, who began to take part in the Games when he was in seventh grade in Sugar Land, Tex., earning his nickname “Tank” as a defensive tackle on the football field.
Now, he plays six sports: softball, basketball, track, bocce, volleyball and golf. A fan page on Facebook has more than 6,000 followers. The videos he records on Twitter describing what being a Special Olympian means to him draw thousands of likes. In 2008, the 5-foot-7 teenager, who has an intellectual disability, was named “Special Olympian of the Year” in Texas.
The Special Olympics, which is based in Washington, D.C., runs programs for more than 5 million athletes in more than 170 countries. It celebrates the contributions of children and adults with intellectual disabilities, a class of people who are often abused and ignored, “giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts,” according to the group’s mission statement.
For Schottle, the Special Olympics has affirmed his sense of self, and the strength of his relationships with people all over the world.
“We’re all humans just like everybody else,” he said. “We can do great things in this world. No matter what happens, we want to continue to bring love and joy to people around the world.”
He abstained from criticizing the Trump administration for recommending cuts to an organization that has been at the center of his life for the past 18 years. He offered, “I don’t like to attack anyone.”
“I do pray that we continue — for me personally, I want to continue,” he said. “As far as the government and that situation, I can’t control what they do, but I pray that it doesn’t happen. I’m praying for the Special Olympics."
Politicians on both sides of the aisle were less discreet in discussing the proposed budget changes, which are not likely to win approval, especially with Democrats newly in control of the House. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) told DeVos that the reduction would affect 272,000 children, later calling her budget “morally bankrupt.”
The education secretary, whose family’s net worth has been estimated at nearly $5.5 billion, responded, “I think that the Special Olympics is an awesome organization, one that is well supported by the philanthropic sector as well.” She said billions in cuts to the department’s budget were necessary to control spending.
Zeroing out federal support would not drain the organization’s budget. Its annual global revenue is about $429 million, according to a 2017 Reach Report.
But critics perceived deeper meaning in the budget blueprint, which would simultaneously expand federal funding for charter schools by $60 million and set up a $5 billion tax credit for contributions to scholarships to private schools. The proposal laid bare the administration’s priorities, they said.
The issue was especially fraught because of criticism that President Trump has faced for mocking a disabled reporter during his campaign for president in 2015.
John Kasich, the former Republican congressman and governor of Ohio who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2016, called the suggested cuts “outrageous.” When he was chairman of the House Budget Committee from 1995 to 2001, he said, “these types of programs were off limits.”
“It seems like every day, the Trump administration manages to stoop even lower,” wrote Gavin Newsom, the Democratic governor of California. “Budgets are statements of values, and you’ve made yours crystal clear.”
Democratic lawmakers seized on the proposal to depict members of the Trump administration as plutocrats.
“Shame on you,” Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) told DeVos at Tuesday’s hearing. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) called the presentation “appalling.”
The Cabinet secretary, whose prior expertise in education policy was limited to steering her personal wealth to the cause of school choice, has at times revealed limited understanding of the nation’s education system. Last year, she acknowledged in an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes” that she had never “intentionally" visited underperforming schools.
ESPN personalities also denounced the proposed budget, calling on DeVos to watch coverage of the Special Olympics, which the channel has brought to television audiences for more than three decades. Just this month, ESPN carried the World Games in Abu Dhabi.
Some of the highlights from the global competition reached Schottle, who said seeing athletes like him compete halfway around the world inspired him to train harder. He wanted to compete in the 2018 USA Games in Seattle, but his name wasn’t drawn in a random selection. He refocused on 2022.
In the meantime, he has been trying out different grips on the racing baton that he needs to hand off to a teammate this spring at the state track meet in San Antonio. Too loose a grip, and the smooth, hollow tube of metal might go flying; too tight, and he might fail to relinquish it at the right moment.
“I run pretty fast, and don’t stop very easily,” he said. “I don’t want to run someone over.”
A smooth handoff after he finishes the third leg of the race could put the athlete and his teammates on the path to victory at the state meet in May. He’ll also compete in the shot put and the 100-meter dash.
He’ll be at the golf links starting next week. The softball season will begin in July, he said. Then, volleyball in September. By November, he’ll be on the basketball court.
Schottle’s father helps coach Special Olympics when he’s not at work in the oil industry. His mother stays home with him.
As fireworks went off in a congressional hearing room, the Special Olympian looked ahead to his workout for Wednesday.
“Mostly cardio,” he said.
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