Special Olympics unified teams seek change off the field

Special Olympics unified teams seek change off the field

Athletes and partners form bonds that teach them lessons for life

(Photo courtesy of Tony Kurdzuk/The Star-Ledger)

By Kathleen O'Brien/Star-Ledger

The team from Utah took the field for warm-ups, somberly performing jumping jacks in preparation for yesterday’s Special Olympics soccer game at Mercer County Park in West Windsor.

Team New Jersey warmed up as well — by dancing to "I’m Sexy and I Know It."

When the lyrics ordered, "Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle," Brooke Creighton and Julie Kelly busted out their choreographed moves, laughing.

Even before the game began, this "unified" team of intellectually disabled and "partner" athletes would already have accomplished its mission.

"It’s basically using sports as a shortcut to friendship," said Aime Dugan, marketing director for Special Olympics, whose 2014 national games are being played at several Mercer County venues through today. "If you play in a unified fashion, you’re more likely to live in a unified fashion."

The experience has been an eye-opener for Creighton, 19, who had participated in Special Olympics for years but hadn’t managed to crack the code for making friends outside her circle of fellow special education students.

"I’ve learned I don’t need to be so shy around regular-education kids," she said. "I’ve never felt accepted by my group of peers. But now I know: They’ll accept you."

A quarter-century ago, when Eunice Kennedy Shriver was asked to give her blessing to unified teams participating in the games she founded, they say she was initially wary. After all, she’d started Special Olympics as a summer camp for developmentally challenged children precisely because they’d been excluded everywhere else.

The worry was the "partners" might dominate play to the detriment of the Special Olympians. "They thought, ‘If we start to let other people in this, is it going to take away from our athletes’ experience?" Dugan said.

The unified team concept is growing and other colleges are following the lead of Rowan University, which in 2012 became the first college to have unified sports as a college club.

Kelly, a senior at Rowan in Glassboro, said that program now has more than 200 students. She played sports in high school, but not soccer.

"If unified sports is done correctly, you should look at the team and not be able to tell who’s the athlete and who’s the partner," Dugan said.

Gary Baker, coach of the New Jersey Unified Team who played soccer at Midland Park High School, helped Rowan get its program running. Players were selected at tryouts that judged both athletic ability and character.

His partner athletes have to strike a delicate balance: They shouldn’t be the ones scoring all the time, yet they shouldn’t go out of their way to avoid scoring.
In their games so far this week, he said, the Special Olympics athletes have scored nine of their 10 goals.

Best of all, though, is the bonding he’s seen off the field. The teams stay onsite for the week, and his enjoyed an evening of charades the other night, he said.

Rules are tweaked to balance fairness and competition. In golf, athletes and their partners alternate shots, as well as drives off the tees. In baseball, a set number of athletes must play the infield, so they aren’t relegated to the outfield.

In soccer, a five-on-five version played on a smaller field, each team must have no more than two "partners" competing at the same time. The games last only a half-hour, and there are far fewer fouls.

But it’s what happens after competition concludes that is the test of unified sports’ success. For unified teams formed as high school clubs, the hope is the players will remain connected throughout the school year.

"A games partner, just by saying hello to them in the hallway, can change that school dynamic," Dugan said. "It’s making their entire school experience more pleasurable, more normal."

The hope is also that "partners" will end up engaging more with the special-needs community.

Julie Kelly has seen her teammate Brooke Creighton grow, change and gain confidence over their months of practice. She’s also seen a different outlook from her fellow Rowan students.

"We see changes in them," she said, "But we see more changes in us."