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Unified Sports brings students of all abilities together

By Elise Brassell; photos courtesy of Special Olympics

Photo of group doing activity

According to a Special Olympics Colorado survey, 96 percent of students with an intellectual disability experienced improved self-confidence because of Unified Champion Schools programming at their school.

There’s something special about the bond between sports teammates, forged by struggling together through wins and losses, teamwork often builds lifelong friendships.

For many young athletes, learning to compete and have fun in sports begins with school sports teams, but people with disabilities do not often get a chance to join a team.

Special Olympics set out to change that by creating its Unified Sports program. Unified Sports combines people with and without disabilities on the same team to build friendships and understanding.

Currently, 24 Douglas County School District (DCSD) schools participate in Unified Sports, including Rocky Heights Middle School (RHMS) which joined the program in 2015 offering unified soccer, basketball and track.

Picture of High-fives

High-fives, fun and encouragement welcomed Unified Sports athletes who play sports such as basketball, soccer, and track and field.

Colleen Pate, teacher at RHMS and head of the school’s Unified Sports program said, “The athletes are so positive and exhibit genuine joy to be on the field, participate in a team sport, and hear bystanders cheer them on. I always say, if you’re having a bad day, just attend a Unified Sports event and you will forget about all of your problems.”

Rocky Heights and several other area schools are Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools. “At Special Olympics Colorado, our Unified Champion School programming includes inclusive opportunities for children and youth both with and without intellectual disabilities to participate in competitive sports, youth leadership, whole-school activities and inclusive health and wellness programming,” said Paige Thieke Clough, Unified Champion Schools manager, Special Olympics Colorado.

There are nearly 1,000 participants in DCSD Unified Sports programming, including Douglas County High School, which recently became a Unified Champion National Banner School, one of six Colorado schools to be awarded this national honor.

“When students demonstrate a positive relationship with peers with disabilities, it shows other students that it’s okay to be friends with someone who is different or has different needs. The ripple effect is a culture and climate of acceptance in the school community, which hopefully spreads to our greater community,” Pate said. As for the student athletes with disabilities, “They develop friendships, get to feel what it’s like to be a part of a team and gain confidence and notoriety in their school community. With Unified Sports, these special athletes have the opportunity to simply have fun and feel a sense of accomplishment.”

To learn more about joining or volunteering for a Unified Sports program, contact your local school or visit specialolympics.org/our-work/sports-and-games/unified-sports.

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