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Sports network to honor Rowan Unified Sports during campus rally on Nov. 3
Rowan University's Unified Sports program was the first program of its kind in the nation. On Nov. 3, ESPN will honor the Campus Recreation sport club during a spirited celebration in Esbjornson Gymnasium.

ESPN is coming to Rowan University’s campus on Saturday, Nov. 3, to recognize Rowan Unified Sports as one of the most elite and successful Unified Sports programs in the nation.

A huge pep rally is planned for 9 a.m. in Esbjornson Gymnasium in Glassboro as ESPN anchor and reporter Michele Steele leads a celebration recognizing Rowan Unified Sports as a national banner school through the network’s Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools National Recognition Program.

The first program of its kind in the nation, Rowan Unified Sports was founded nearly seven years ago as a Campus Recreation sport club. Through the program, Special Olympics athletes with intellectual disabilities and Rowan students (known as partners) play side by side as they compete in soccer each fall and basketball each spring. Each season lasts six weeks.

Rowan is the only university in the U.S. to be named among the Top 5 Unified Champion Schools for 2018. It’s also the first institution ever chosen to be featured by ESPN.

To achieve Unified Champion School status, the program was required to meet 10 national standards of inclusion outlined by Special Olympics. They included having an active and robust club that promotes advocacy, awareness and inclusion; initiating campaigns that support school-wide engagement; and demonstrating sustainability.

On average, more than 50 athletes and 75 Rowan students compete together each season in Rowan Unified Sports.

Joining the fun

Doors for the pep rally open at 8 a.m. at Rowan’s Rec Center. The first 500 fans will receive commemorative t-shirts and thunder sticks as the University community joins with Unified Sports fans and parents and family members of athletes and partners to celebrate the program on the national stage. ESPN will use portions of the footage from the pep rally in a piece that will appear on espn.com/specialolympics. The segment also will appear on Special Olympics web sites.

The event will include a $10,000 half-court shot contest, as well as a raffle to win a baseball signed by Millville native Mike Trout, a two-time American League MVP for Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Angels.

The celebration begins with a short Unified Sports basketball game at 9 a.m. Members of Rowan’s cheerleading and dance squads will be on hand to lead cheers, as will the Prof, Rowan’s mascot.

Rowan President Ali A. Houshmand and State Senate President Steve Sweeney will attend, as will Marc Edenzon, president of Special Olympics North America, and Heather Anderson, president of Special Olympics New Jersey. Sweeney’s daughter, Lauren, is a Unified athlete.

Clad in Rowan gear with homemade signs of support in hand, members of the University community and fans, friends and supporters of Unified Sports and the Special Olympics all are invited to join the event, which will culminate with a special banner unveiling ceremony featuring all athletes and partners involved in the program.

Following the rally, a 5K or one-mile fun run to support Special Olympics New Jersey kicks off from the Rec Center at 10:30 a.m. Registrations for the run are still being accepted.

A Rowan tradition

Rowan Unified Sports began in 2012 with the 5K campus run, which was then called Miles for Medals. Gary Baker, currently assistant director of Greek Affairs, planned the run and later took a call from Special Olympics New Jersey inquiring about whether Rowan would be interested in instituting a Unified Sports program.

“I just knew something special was coming,” says Baker. From the very start, Rowan students were all in, Baker says.

“The first time we had an interest meeting for students, the Rec Center conference room was standing room only,” Baker says. “The students answered the call. They ‘got it’ immediately. They bought in.”

The captain of the football team, Student Government Association presidents, student trustees, and student leaders from all areas of Rowan joined Unified Sports, he says. That set the tone for the club’s future success.

“We benefitted from having students step up who already were super involved,” says Baker. “We had awesome people from the start. There was a sense of, ‘This is our culture here at Rowan.’ There’s a special feeling at Rowan you can’t necessarily describe. It makes me proud to see that students care.”

While Rowan was the first Unified Sports Club of its kind at a college or university, scores of schools have followed. According to Special Olympics, 215 colleges across the nation boast Unified Sports programs, including the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell, was well as sports powerhouses like Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska and Pitt. Unified programs also are present in elementary, middle and high schools nationwide.

“We were not the first place in the world to have had Unified. But we led the charge at colleges,” says Baker.

Rowan’s program has achieved phenomenal success. In 2014, a Rowan Unified Soccer team, coached by Baker, won a gold medal at the USA Games. Additionally, Rowan has won the Unified Cup, a tournament for New Jersey institutions, in both soccer and basketball.

Last year, a Rowan Unified team traveled to Ohio State University to compete against teams around the nation in a Unified basketball championship organized by NIRSA – Leaders in Collegiate Recreation.

Playing Unified

But the true spirit of playing “Unified” can be found for six weeks each fall and spring as athletes and Rowan student partners come together as teammates, building friendships that go well beyond the fields and courts. Rowan students, who contribute $15 each season to play Unified Sports, say they can’t wait for game day each week.

“This is the furthest thing from responsibility,” says junior finance major Joe Poole, who coached soccer this fall. Poole’s brother, Peter, is a gifted Special Olympics athlete known as much for his smooth moves as his post-game hugs.

“The best part of Unified Sports is that it’s competitive. But even with the competing, there’s still great sportsmanship. Being involved with this allows me to appreciate things more.”

Creating inclusive spaces for all—in sports and in life--is at the heart of Unified Sports. The program’s credo is “Live. Play. Unified.”

“Students have told me, ‘When I come to Unified, I don’t think about anything else. There’s an in-the-moment feeling, a feeling of being truly present,” says Unified Sports Co-President Kaitlee Francisco, an elementary education and liberal studies major who is pursuing a special education endorsement.

Admittedly not a strong athlete, Francisco found her niche as an organizer and coach, rather than a player.

“I know where my strengths lie,” laughs Francisco, co-president of the club with senior mechanical engineering major Joe Egan. “Unified Sports is what made me feel like I had a place and a purpose at Rowan. It made me more sensitive to the world in general. And it showed me that no matter what ability you have, you can have an impact.

“What we’re doing…even though it’s one program…it makes a difference. It’s really fun, very moving, and so impactful.”

Unified family

Twins Gia and Billy Corsetti were born a minute apart. Gia, a senior psychology major, is older and serves as a Unified coach. Billy plays Unified basketball each spring and was on the team that went to Ohio State last year. They share an easy repartee typical of siblings, complete with one-liners and zingers.

“I never wanted to be on her team because I wanted someone who knows what they’re doing,” Billy says, jabbing at his sister, who cackles with laughter. “When we face each other, we’re not family at that time.”

“Last names don’t matter!” Gia chimes in. “We’re very competitive. He’s always trash talking me.”

Yet, Gia says, she chose Rowan because of Unified Sports.

“When we were little, we couldn’t do sports together,” she says. “Now, we’re on equal playing ground. We have something very competitive between us. Unified has allowed Billy to branch out a lot more. It gave him so many friendships. I’m friends with a lot of his friends now.”

“There’s no hand holding in Unified Sports,” their mom, Michele, says. “There are no kid gloves and no barriers. I tell people to come to Unified Sports all the time. I tell them, ‘You’re going to love it. You’re going to laugh. You’re going to cry. You’re going to cheer.’ It’s teamwork at its best.”

Unified parent Heather Altman, who won best dressed parent for her owl-inspired face paint at Championship Soccer Day recently, agrees. Her daughter, Rowan Drummey, has gained confidence through her involvement with Unified, she says.

“This gives Rowan part of the college experience…and everyone is wearing her name on their shirt,” quips Altman. “Here, everyone gets an opportunity to play. She used to be timid on the field. Now, she chases after people. She’s in the thick of it.

“This has made Rowan feel like she’s part of something,” she continues. “She’s super shy. But she wholeheartedly feels like everyone is her friend here. If the whole world ran like Unified, we’d be in a better place.”

Drummey scored her second goal—ever—during Championship Day this fall. Her first goal was a year ago and came after five years of playing Unified Sports.

“We were pretty much out on the field screaming,” Altman says. “We talked about it for months in our house. It boosted her confidence. It changed how she felt about herself as an athlete.”

Beauty of sport

That’s the beauty—and power--of sport, says Kevin George, director of campus recreation.

“Creating memories, working as a team, learning sportsmanship, and celebrating accomplishments are all results of Rowan Unified Sports,” says George, who can’t wait for a packed—and spirited—Esbjornson Gymnasium for the ESPN event on Nov. 3. Attendance is free.

“The bond and relationships as a result of participating in Unified can have a lifelong impact,” he continues. “The power of sport is truly seen through the coaches, players and parent interaction.

“Being in the club provides a life-long appreciation for inclusivity. And we hope those individuals live ‘unified’ through their post-college work, in and out of the office, and in volunteerism and service opportunities.”