A last-minute switch led to Special Olympic gold for this Grand Strand swimmer

Max Wolff (far right) won a gold and silver medal in swimming at the Special Olympics USA Games.
Max Wolff (far right) won a gold and silver medal in swimming at the Special Olympics USA Games.

A Grand Strand native won big while representing South Carolina in his first national tournament at the Special Olympics USA Games in Washington this July.

Max Wolff, who has Down syndrome, was part of a gold medal-winning 4x100 relay team that brought him in at the last minute when another swimmer got sick. He also won a individual silver medal in the individual freestyle competition.

Although this was a new experience for Wolff, the 21-year-old from Surfside Beach is no stranger to the pool. He learned to swim at an early age and has swam with organizations like Coastal Aquatic Club. He was also a member of the St. James High School swim team.

Indeed, swimming has been a part of the Wolff family since long before the USA Games. His dad, Keith Wolff, swam for many years and thought the sport would be a great way to keep the kids active.

“They started off with swim lessons very young ... Everyone really liked it and then they were all competing,” he said.

His mom Wendy Wolff was grateful to find an activity that was a one-stop shop for all four of her kids.

“I needed something they could all do if I was going to be stuck at Pepper Geddings,” she said, referencing the Myrtle Beach recreation center.

The family got involved with the Special Olympics in Horry County years before Wolff was chosen to be a member of the state team for the USA Games. They’re big fans of the opportunities the organization provides.

“It’s one of the best non-profit organizations there is,” Keith said.

Still, in some ways it took the family by surprise how much this competition would mean to all of them. Originally, Keith was the only one traveling with Wolff to Washington. It wasn’t until the rest of the family was watching the event’s opening ceremony from home that Wendy realized she needed to make the trip.

“I started crying and my girls said ‘Mom, you need to buy a ticket,’” she said. “I can’t even describe it.”

Wolff’s parents agreed that seeing their son succeed at such a high level was a rewarding experience.

“It really was kind of heartwarming,” Keith said, “the fact that everybody was there to compete and have fun ... Everybody was celebrating everyone’s achievements.”

Without Wolff, the team wouldn’t have even been able to compete in the 4x100 relay. He was a last-minute substitute after another member of the team got sick, his coach Scott Wentsky said.

“He was really pivotal in helping the team ... He came through in the clutch,” he said.

Everyone had to race to get him back to the venue and warmed up in time to swim.

“It was really like we grabbed him out of the car,” Wentsky said.

Wolff was one of 166 athletes from Team South Carolina to compete in Washington. Three thousand athletes from across the country traveled to the Seattle area for the 2018 USA Games.

This isn’t the first time Wolff’s skills in the pool have received national attention. He got a shout-out from Hall of Fame Olympic swimmer Rowdy Gaines on Twitter in 2016 while swimming for St. James.

In addition to his medal-worthy performances in the freestyle and 4x100 meter relay, Wolff also competed in the backstroke race. Wolff also plays basketball and runs track with the Special Olympics.