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Friendships, school pride grow with unified sports

Emily Lytle * Delaware
elytle@doverpost.com
Dover Post

There’s a particular thrill to high school sports. Wearing the team jersey on game day. Getting a good-luck high-five from teachers or students you’ve never talked to before. Hearing the cheerleaders and crowd rally as the final minutes count down.

Five years ago, many high school students with disabilities could not play school sports. The growth of unified sports is changing that.

These Special Olympics coed teams are made up of an equal number of students with and without intellectual disabilities. Student John Fisher joined Dover High’s unified flag football and basketball teams this year and said one of the biggest rewards is building friendships.

“Just the family, just the friendship that we all have, just the brotherhood that we have together,” Fisher said. “On the court and off the court, we’re brothers. That’s basically how it goes.”

Special Olympics refers to the students with disabilities as athletes and the general education students as partners. Dover High School unified coach Gavin Schukoske recalled seeing his team come together in their first flag football game against Caesar Rodney. 

“It was really just a beautiful thing, and I fell in love,” he said. “It was a truly competitive competition that my athletes had never experienced before. To give that opportunity to kids who never had the opportunity before, the feeling was indescribable.”

Unified sports teams have been around since 1989 but have more recently been incorporated into schools at a competitive level. In 2018, the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association included unified flag football, basketball and track and field as official school sports. 

On the rise

In the 2018-19 school year, more than 400 Delaware students played unified sports. according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Donna Polk, DIAA executive director, said those numbers increase each year.

“It’s a growing program, and it’s something that the schools are definitely wanting to be a part of,” Polk said.

Like any DIAA sport, unified sports are organized by a committee. Nate Threatts, manager of Unified Champion Schools at Special Olympics Delaware, is on that committee and oversees the partnership between DIAA and Special Olympics.

“Right now, we’re getting everything set in stone,” Threatts said. “Now we’re getting everything put on paper and publicized for the public like any other DIAA sport.”

Unified Basketball State Championship

WHO: Dover vs. Caesar Rodney

WHEN: Friday, March 13 at 6 p.m.

WHERE: University of Delaware

A coach for all three unified sports at Middletown High School, Matt Engleman said the program has changed since partnering with DIAA. “There’s a lot more focus on it, a lot more promotion of it and a lot more ability for people to come and watch,” he said.

Tiffany Snyder, a unified coach at Seaford High School, agreed. “From what I’ve seen all over statewide, there has been growth,” she said. “There has been a mindset change toward unified sports [and] actually seeing them as another after-school sport.”

The coaches said they have seen more students interested each year. In the future, Threatts wants to see more schools involved and more sports offered. “Eventually, our goal is to have two sports for each season,” he said. He hopes to add bowling or bocce for students who do not have the physical capability to play other sports.

As it grows, Engelman said he hopes unified sports stay focused on creating opportunities for the athletes with disabilities. “I just hope it doesn’t go the route of an easy way for a school to kind of look at winning a championship,” he said. “I hope the DIAA sees that it should be more athlete-focused.”

Changing lives

MaryAnn Mieczkowski, director of Special Education at the Delaware Department of Education, said unified sports fits into an ongoing trend of inclusion. She said everyone can learn to accept others’ challenges and raise expectations when students with and without disabilities come together.

“When you have someone that’s encouraging you to finish the race or cross the finish line or learn to dribble better, it raises the performance and this in turn makes people and students feel better, and encourages everyone in the life of a child with a disability to raise expectations,” she said. “[And] when you raise expectations for a person, for a child, they will certainly meet it.”

While Threatts was establishing the Caesar Rodney program, he saw athletes grow their social and athletic skills. “They learn so much through the whole process. You can tell the difference between the ones that participate in unified and the ones that don’t,” he said.

Parents are noticing it, too. John Fisher’s mother Marie Fisher never misses a Dover unified game and said she has watched her son gain confidence and a sense of responsibility. “I’m so proud of him, and it’s caused him to come out of his shell a lot,” she said.

Beyond leadership skills and teamwork in both the athletes and partners, the coaches said the sense of belonging and school pride are some of the biggest takeaways.

After winning the flag football championship in the fall, Dover’s unified team got an escort back into the city. “These kids know how much the community supports them,” Schukoske said. “These guys are getting to be a part of something that’s bigger than themselves.”

At the end of every game, Schukoske brings both teams to the center of the field or court for a huddle. He tells both teams how lucky they are to be unified athletes and thanks the opponents for being strong competitors.

“We’re one big unified family,” he said.

Unified sports across the region

Schools across the country began forming teams as part of the Unified Champion Schools program in 2008. Now, more than 4,500 schools participate nationwide.
Every state has a different approach. In Delaware and Pennsylvania, the state associations treat the high school teams like any varsity team. Other state associations have yet to sanction unified sports.

  • Delaware

Eighteen high schools have unified sports.
Flag football started in Caesar Rodney, Concord, Middletown, Mount Pleasant and William Penn in 2015. Track and field started in 2015 and basketball started in 2017.
All three were recognized by the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association in the 2018-2019 school year. Special Olympics offers three levels, but DIAA only sanctions the competitive level, which means the teams can advance to state or regional competitions.
Delaware is one of four states with state sanctioned flag football teams, one of 15 with basketball and one of 22 with track and field.

  • Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association has partnered with unified sports programs in 193 schools. Most offer bocce and track and field. Some in Philadelphia offer soccer.

  • Virginia

More than 500 Virginia schools offer unified sports at the preschool, elementary, middle and high school levels. Most have track and field and basketball is growing. A few offer bocce, bowling or soccer.
The state association has not yet adopted unified sports as an official Virginia High School League activity.