When seven-year-old Colton Darst was born, the doctors told his family that he would never be able to walk. Darst was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which is multiple contractures of the joint, according to Colton’s mother, Amber Darst. However, Colton proved the doctors wrong by walking at the age of three and a half. Amber said that in his lifetime, Colton has undergone 10 surgeries, hip reconstruction and has had over 80 casts. Because of Colton’s condition, the University of Indianapolis wrestling team welcomed him as a member of their team on Nov. 26, 2019 according to UIndy Athletics, through an organization called TeamIMPACT.
According to the TeamIMPACT’s website, “TeamIMPACT connects children battling serious or chronic illnesses with college athletic teams, forming lifelong bonds and life-changing outcomes.” Regional Director of Programs Kiernan McGeehan, who has been a part of the TeamIMPACT organization since 2016, is responsible for matching families with collegiate athletic programs within the Midwest region. This was how Colton was connected to UIndy wrestling.
“As a program, we work with a lot of different kids, with a lot of different medical backgrounds and diagnoses,” McGeehan said. “One thing that we really focus on, and one thing that we have learned as an organization is that most, if not all of the kids in our program are going through the same social, emotional challenges or anxieties that may be brought on by their diagnoses. That social piece is the common denominator that we see in connecting these kids with their teams.”
According to McGeehan, TeamIMPACT is looking to offer the child a safe space and an environment where they can make and maintain meaningful relationships between the student-athletes and coaches that they are paired with.
“When we first got started, we got super into the idea that these student-athletes and coaches could impact the child’s life as much as possible,” McGeehan said. “But, we really see from our athletic contacts and our athletic participants that these kids are having just as much of an impact, if not more [on them].”
Amber said when Colton talks about the wrestling team, his face lights up. She said that Colton is just one of the boys.
“[Colton’s] personality is so infectious and he just fits so perfectly with this wrestling team,” Amber said. “He never has known anything about wrestling at all, but he met with them and he didn’t know how it was gonna go and I was worried. But I am so glad he got matched up with the wrestling team because these kids are amazing with him.”
Aside from Colton and his family attending wrestling matches, the team spends time with Colton outside of those matches. Amber said that some of the wrestlers went trick or treating with Colton last year and came over after to play video games and bake cookies. Head Wrestling Coach Jason Warthan, who has been with UIndy for 10 years said that this is their first time with a TeamIMPACT kid. He said that once Colton came, it was awesome and he is a special little guy.
“We want to help him and make him feel a part of things and what we have seen is that it’s had a positive effect on our guys too,” Warthan said. “It’s not just us giving back, he brings a lot of energy with him and to see that our guys are happy when he’s around. I think it brings perspective, too, that we have God-given talents that we’re able to use and develop and he’s not going to have those same types of opportunities with his condition, but it hasn’t stopped him from living life to the fullest.”
According to McGeehan, UIndy currently has two teams connected with TeamIMPACT, men’s soccer and wrestling. In the past, other teams such as baseball, men’s basketball and men’s golf have been matched with kids from TeamIMPACT. McGeehan said that from a programmatic lens, the kids are with the team for two years, but after those two years, the child technically graduates from the program. However, they leave it open to the family and team to carry on their relationship beyond the boundaries of TeamIMPACT.
One of the kids who has carried on that relationship is 14 year old Braden Tamosaitis. Braden has been a part of the UIndy men’s soccer team for over five years, according to McGeehan. Braden’s dad Kevin, said that Braden has spina bifida and has had more than 30 surgeries to date.
According to Kevin, they first heard about TeamIMPACT when they saw a story in The Reflector about the baseball team and their past TeamIMPACT kid. Kevin said they already had connections with UIndy when Braden threw the first pitch at a baseball game and did the coin toss before a football game.
This led them to eventually apply for TeamIMPACT and get paired with the mens’ soccer team.
“During our first season, we were really unsure what to expect. Coach Higgins and the university from day one told us any meetings, any practices, any games, anything that Braden wanted to be at, he was a part of the team as much as anybody else,” Kevin said. “They even had Braden do a version of a fitness test and he got access to his locker that they gave him and all his UIndy gear, it was actually a really cool experience that first time.”
To this date, according to Kevin, Braden has had five collegiate starts with the UIndy soccer team and Coach Higgins has lettered him every year as well. Kevin said that the coaching staff, the sports administration and the school administration have treated them like family.
“The boys are there for Braden when he has surgery. The coaches, I’ve watched some of their kids grow up over the years, become friends with all of them. We’ve traveled with the soccer team, we were able to experience the final four with them this past season,” Kevin said. “They’ve done nothing but support everything with Braden. Hats off to them.”