Close your eyes and imagine following your high school teammates up the stairs of your school’s auditorium through a tunnel of cheering, sign-bearing students high-fiving, fist bumping, and hugging you as you approach the school doors. Beyond the doors is an auditorium filled with proud parents unable to hold back tears of pure joy, teachers and coaches funneling students into their seats with controlled excitement as they provide any last-minute instructions, and 250 supporters here to cheer in your joy, shed tears in the presence of your pride, and stand in celebration of your success. “This is your day,” is exalted by Kevin Negandhi of ESPN as he shakes your hand.
Now, open your eyes. Were you the star quarterback committing to Clemson, the 7-foot post player declaring for the NBA, or the softball pitcher signing that letter of intent to Arizona State? In reality, this scene does not include any star athletes, no NCAA Division I ball caps strategically aligned on a table in front of you, but 71 proud Special Olympics Athletes and their Unified Partners joining together to form Unified Teams in basketball, bowling, track and field, and swimming within South Carolina’s Lexington School District One.
On this beautiful day in South Carolina, Special Olympics South Carolina (SOSC) teamed up with Unified Champion High Schools in Lexington School District One to implement the official Special Olympics High School Athletic Letter Recognition Program in which Special Olympics Athletes and Unified Partners from Lexington, River Bluff and White Knoll High Schools were recognized for training and competing in interscholastic competition.
While Inclusion began on the playing field with Unified Sports, it has spilled over into the culture of these schools as they have exemplified all the components of unified schools, including Unified Sports, Youth Leadership and Whole School Engagement & Awareness. It is the spirit of the student body, school leadership, and community that led to this incredible moment.
The celebration continues as you enter the Lexington High School gym, bleachers filled with the entire student body. Cheerleaders from all three district schools are forming a tunnel to welcome you into the pep rally in which you are the guest of honor. The football team, dressed in gameday jerseys, jumps off the gym floor as you enter with arms raised prodding the students to stand and cheer as if roles are reversed and you are running out of the tunnel on Friday night.
Lexington High School Principal Melissa Rawl beams with pride in her student body as the red and white Special Olympics National Unified Champion School banner is revealed for the first time on the blue and yellow wall of the gymnasium. Principal Rawl states in front of the entire student body, “I’m excited to see how your years here with Unified Sports as a fan club has impacted you and will impact you for years to come. May you always have open minds and welcoming hearts ready to unify those around you, no matter what campus or place or community you become a part of.”
Associate Commissioner Nessie Harris of the South Carolina High School League, described her emotions as she witnessed the celebration of these student athletes, “Tears were brought to my eyes and chills to my body to see the Special Olympic athletes walk across the stage to receive their high school letters. I am so proud of Lexington, River Bluff and White Knoll High Schools in how they have come together and supported the Special Olympic athletes with Unified Sports and activities. It was indeed an honor to be a part of the unveiling of the National Unified Champion School Banner presented to Lexington High School, the first in the state of South Carolina. I am looking forward to having some form of partnership with the South Carolina Special Olympic Organization.”
The power of sport to tear down walls, dispel stereotypes, and foster friendships has never been more apparent than on this day at Lexington High School. The students, administration and teachers within Lexington School District One have collectively made the move from sidelines to game time.
Lindsey Atkinson is a coordinator of sports, a member of the inclusion staff and the tennis liaison for the NFHS.