Michael Linder, a 7th-grader at Walsh Intermediate School (WIS) in Branford, has a schedule packed full of sports that changes depending on the season. Michael plays ice hockey with Yale Youth Hockey seven months out of the year, is a second baseman for Branford Little League in the spring, and wrestles for WIS during the winter.
While this schedule is the norm for many middle school athletes, Michael is doing it all with achondroplasia, the most common type of dwarfism. Despite being smaller than his opponents, Michael has achieved great success in each one of his sports and, this August, he had the opportunity to shine at the World Dwarf Games (WDG) held at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. The event drew athletes from more than 20 countries.
“It was fun because I got to meet new people, and it was good to compete for our country and show everyone what you can do,” says Michael. “My goal was to go out there and do my best.”
Michael competed in 11 events at the WDG, medaling in eight of them. He claimed gold in the cricket ball throw, volleyball, and the 4x60 relay; won silver in the javelin, Frisbee throw, and floor hockey with the age 12-to-15 team; and earned bronze in soccer and as a member of the floor hockey team.
Earlier this year, Michael was featured in USA Hockey Magazine. Colin Kraft, who works for the San Diego Gulls, the farm team for the Anaheim Ducks, had read that article and then sought out Michael at the WDG’s opening ceremony.
“Colin played hockey as a kid and, having read the article about Michael, he knew he was a hockey player,” says Megan Linder, Michael’s mom. “Colin took him right in and asked him to play with the men’s team at the Games. It was amazing for him to be asked up.”
Michael not only competed at the men’s level, he also scored two of his team’s four goals, including the go-ahead goal, and added an assist to help them win the bronze.
“It was cool that I was the only one that got called up,” Michael says. “It was harder than competing [against] kids I usually play with in my age. Colin is a really good hockey player, and he taught me a lot while we were up there.”
In addition to meeting Kraft at the Games, Michael got to meet a number of other influential people, such as YouTube celebrity Evan Eckenrode, actor Martin Klebba who was featured in Pirates of the Caribbean, basketball player Jahmani Swanson, and Zach Shattuck, a standout athlete at the WDG and a senior at University of Maryland who continues to stay in touch with Michael.
“All of these adult men were instant mentors and great examples,” says Megan Linder, who notes that October is Dwarfism Awareness Month. “They made these kids feel so special and encouraged them and supported them. They came to their games, cheered them on, and taught them new skills. It showed them not only that they can keep playing sports, but have professional job and a great life.”
This was the first World Dwarf Games that Michael competed in. He and his family learned about the event after attending one of Little People of America’s National Conferences. Michael had previously taken part in the Dwarf Athletic Association of America’s Games that are held each year in between the World Dwarf Games, which are held every fourth year.
The experience was empowering and inspiring for both Michael and his family members who accompanied him on the trip, including his mom, his dad Dennis, his twin Jack, and his siblings Billy and Aliya.
“It was one of the most emotional, incredible experiences for me as an adult and for the entire family. Being able to see your child competing with these athletes of different shapes and sizes and meeting the families of these athletes was really amazing,” Megan says. “His siblings were very supportive, cheering him on and assistant coaching, even though there were some very long days. Everybody has a disability by nature of dwarfism, but to see the competition, the athleticism, the camaraderie and friendships, and meeting people around the world was very special.”
There wasn’t much downtime for Michael after returning from the WDG as he’s now in his third year of playing hockey, a sport he took an interest in after watching his brother Billy on the ice. Michael says the highlight of his hockey career so far was playing in a tournament at Lake Placid, New York, the site of the 1980 Winter Olympics, where the United States won the gold.
“We got to play on the rink where they won their medal and use their locker room,” says Michael, who also notched his first hat trick last season. “I’d seen Miracle about the Miracle on Ice, so it was a really cool experience. We came in second overall, and we did great.”
Once hockey ends in March, Michael switches gears and heads to the baseball diamond. Before that, though, Michael will be even busier as, in addition to hockey, he will also be competing on the mats for the WIS wrestling team. Michael started wrestling in WIS Coach Tom Ermini’s summer clinics 2012 with before he came to middle school. So far at WIS, Michael has qualified for several tournaments, taking second place in two of them. His goal for his 7th-grade season is to take a top spot.
“I want to get my name on the wall this year,” says Michael, who thanks Coach Ermini and hockey coach Eric Gateman for their support. “Coach Tom helps me to do what I can and pushes me to my limit. He helps me find my way to win. Coach Gateman was my first hockey coach and taught me everything about hockey.”
Michael hopes to continue playing sports in high school, but as someone with dwarfism, it can be a difficult road, according to his mom. Both Michael and his mother are happy that events like the World Dwarf Games exist, so he can continue competing athletically throughout his adulthood. Despite the challenges that dwarfism can bring, Michael wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I like being a little person. We get to do cool stuff like the Games, meet people from around the world, and travel around the country,” Michael says. “Sometimes being shorter means you have to work twice as hard as average-sized people, but I can take anyone on.”
For more information on the World Dwarf Games, visit worlddwarfgames2017.org.