Summer vacation means family trips, summer camps and a break from school work. For several student-athletes across the country, this summer will include an experience of a lifetime. On July 1, more than 4,000 athletes, coaches and delegates from across the United States will descend on Seattle, Washington for the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games. Interscholastic teams representing 14 states will take part in this summer’s games in the Unified sports of basketball and soccer. This unique opportunity is thanks in part to the collaboration between state associations and local Special Olympics Programs that provide inclusive opportunities in high schools across the country.
The partnership between high school state activities associations and Special Olympics has been instrumental in the growth of Unified programs across the country. The impact of which is felt by everyone from the athletes to the Unified partners to administrators and the community as a whole.
Joe Paddock, assistant executive director of the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA), first got involved with Unified Sports as a district athletic director and saw firsthand the impact it could have on a student body. “We saw Unified Sports as an opportunity for another group of students to get involved and provide our student partners with a different type experience,” Paddock said. Mountain View High School from Tucson will represent Arizona at the USA Games competing in Unified Basketball.
Head Coach at Mountain View High School, Meghann Montanaro, also noticed the cultural shift in the school environment from as a result of this program. “Watching athletes and partners become a part of the school community and have meaningful friendships outside of Special Olympics class period, is changing the climate of our school.”
Montanaro has been fortunate to watch the Unified program grow tremendously from only offering track and field in the first year to now offering five activities (basketball, cheerleading, badminton, floor hockey, and track and field) in the sixth year of the Unified program. Due to their involvement on and off campus for various activities, Mountain View was recently recognized as a National Banner Unified Champion School by Special Olympics. A banner school is one that has demonstrated commitment to inclusion by meeting 10 standards of excellence as determined by a national panel of leaders from Special Olympics and the education community.
Another school that will be showcasing their basketball talents at the USA Games will be Moorestown High School from New Jersey. Moorestown qualified by winning the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletics Association state championship. The NJSIAA is in their second year of a joint effort with Special Olympics New Jersey in conducting Unified events. The NJSIAA currently sponsors interscholastic championships in basketball, bowling and track and field and will be adding swimming next year.
Moorestown High School
(Picture by Tony Maselli)
“This year we had tremendous growth in track and field, last year we had 6 schools taking part, this year it was up to around 30 teams. We expect it to continue to grow as more and more schools begin to see the impact that Unified has on the entire school community,” said Al Stumpf, Assistant Director of the NJSIAA. “I wish that everyone could see these types of impact that the Unified program has caused on the school community - if they do they will see that Unified is a powerful tool to make the school better for everyone.”
The power of education-based athletics to promote inclusion and acceptance within schools and communities is a repeated sentiment amongst many.
Brian Smith, Assistant Executive Director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, is one that shares that sentiment. “Schools that participate in this program share numerous success stories, but the constant theme is acceptance. By utilizing whole school engagement, inclusive sports, and inclusive student leadership this program can have a profound effect on the experiences of all students in the school community. It is a formula for future societal change where acceptance and a bias-free environment can be the norm.”
Washington will have interscholastic teams competing in Unified basketball as well as Unified Soccer. “We are proud of our Unified Champion Schools and look forward to the positive impact these students will have on their communities,” Smith said.
Othello High School
(Picture courtesy of the WIAA)
There will be numerous interscholastic teams representing their schools, their communities and their states at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games. The following states will have schools competing in Unified basketball: Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Dakota, California, Washington, and Wyoming. States with teams competing in Unified soccer will be: Arizona, Kansas, California, Utah, and Washington.
The chance to participate in the USA Games is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity many of these students will never forget. They will form lifelong friendships, compete on national television and demonstrate the power of sport to break down barriers and bring people of obvious differences together. As one student put it, “I feel very special and very lucky.”