Among the elite

Among the elite

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ESPN, Special Olympics team up to honor Rowan Unified Sports

As the crowd counted backwards from 10 and the game clock hit zero, Joe Egan, Kaitlee Francisco and Jason MacEwen gave two cords a demonstrative tug, pulling down a black drape from the wall of Esbjornson Gymnasium.

Working in unison, they unveiled a red, black and white banner that formally recognizes what everyone involved in the program already knows:

Rowan Unified Sports is something special.

Now, the whole nation knows it, too.

During a spirited, early morning pep rally in Esby Gym on Nov. 3 featuring ESPN reporter and anchor Michele Steele, Rowan University was honored as a national banner Special Olympics Unified Champion School. The honor, presented by Special Olympics and ESPN, places the University among the elite schools nationwide in providing inclusive sports and activities for students with and without disabilities.

Rowan is the only university in the United States to be named among the Top 5 Unified Champion Schools this year. Additionally, it’s the first college or university ever to be chosen to be featured by ESPN.

The first program of its kind in the nation, Rowan Unified Sports, a Campus Recreation sports club, was founded nearly seven years ago. Through Unified Sports, Special Olympics athletes with intellectual disabilities and their Rowan student partners compete side by side in soccer each fall and basketball each spring.

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

National standards of excellence

The Unified Champion School designation means that Unified Sports meets national standards of excellence in the areas of inclusion, advocacy and respect. To achieve the honor, the program met 10 national standards outlined by Special Olympics, including having an active and robust club that promotes advocacy, awareness and inclusion; initiating campaigns that support school-wide engagement; and demonstrating sustainability.

Those standards were on display en masse as Egan, Francisco and MacEwen, all members of the Unified Sports executive board, joined with Steele to lead the banner presentation celebration before a packed, noisy crowd in Esby Gym. Egan and Francisco are co-presidents of the club, while MacEwen represents Special Olympics athletes on the board.

Rowan President Ali A. Houshmand, State Senate President Steve Sweeney, Special Olympics North America President Marc Edenzon and Special Olympics New Jersey President Heather Anderson all spoke at the celebration. Gary Baker, assistant director of Greek Affairs and founder of Rowan Unified Sports, also spoke, as did Bill Moylan, a Rowan alumnus who was involved with Unified Sports as a student.

Steele said she felt welcome at Rowan the minute she stepped onto campus, something which clearly shows in Rowan Unified Sports competition. She led members of the crowd in using their phones to take the “Inclusion Pledge” sponsored by ESPN and Special Olympics. Their goal is to get 7 million people to take the pledge to be inclusive in sports and in their daily lives. The Inclusion Pledge can be accessed by texting ESPN to 51555.

She likened Unified fans to Philadelphia Eagles fans, noting the excitement is similar.

“There is so much energy from you guys,” Steele said. “There is one team that won the Super Bowl last year and there is one school--one university in this country--that is being recognized as a Unified Champion School. Take the credit for that one. It’s your hard work. It’s your success.”

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 day included the annual Unified 5K run with all proceeds going to Special Olympics.

'A new generation of inclusion'

Edenzon said Rowan students have “built a fabric of inclusion” on campus.

“You students are part of a new generation. A new generation of inclusion. A new generation of acceptance. A new generation of understanding,” said Edenzon. “And we thank you for that.”

Edenzon also challenged the students to continue to promote inclusion as they leave Rowan.

“I’m going to ask you to graduate as a game changer,” he said. “I’m going to ask you to go teach inclusion.”

Fittingly, 10-minute basketball game was part of the ceremony, which the gold team won in a thriller, 14-11. The celebration also included a highlights reel of Rowan Unified competition produced by Special Olympics New Jersey. A video highlighting parents’ perspectives moved many in the crowd to tears.

But the celebration was joyful. As Egan, Francisco and MacEwen unveiled the banner, confetti flew from all directions and hugs and high fives were in abundance.

“We’re so proud of the 50 athletes and 75 Rowan students who play together each Unified Sports season,” Francisco said. “We are teammates. We are friends. And we work together, in sports and beyond, in every aspect of our lives, to make our society kinder and more inclusive.”

MacEwen summed it up more succinctly.

“It’s a great day,” he said with authority, “to be Rowan PROUD…and Unified PROUD!”