From using ‘Rock, Paper, and Scissors’ to decide who gets the ball first to the hugs and cheers regardless of who scored the goal, the sportsmanship of nearly 200 student-athletes and the work they put into the tournament could set the standard for a winning game no matter the level.
Unified sports are a combination of students in general education, many of whom do not have specific athletic training, with students in special education. They work together as teammates and compete in various sports.
Currently, through a partnership with Special Olympics Utah, the districts sponsor four UHSAA-sanctioned sports: soccer, basketball, track, and swim. The districts have also added bocce and golf for middle school athletes.
The students aren’t the only ones who understand the importance of these games. Teachers like Brighton High School’s Jared Denslow realize the sport means more than scorecards and ribbons. The relationships the students create mold them on and off the field.
“They love playing with their peers and feeling accepted and feeling like they are just like everybody else. That’s what it’s all about right? Just being a part of something,” he said about his students. “When you feel like you are a part of something, you thrive. My kids’ behavior has gotten better in the classroom, they’re happier they look forward to this and it is something that has changed so many people’s lives, including my own.”
Denslow teaches extended core classes for students with intellectual disabilities, and he says it is the best job in the world.
“It’s humbling,” he said with emotion. “I’m a very lucky man.”
Denslow was just one of the faculty members out rooting on all the teams. Superintendents from Canyons and Jordan School Districts were on hand for a little friendly rivalry. There were cheerleaders and student-athletes as well as student volunteers running score tables and setting up equipment.
The sport is all about inclusion and building relationships between students. Each athlete walks on to the field wearing a jersey that proclaims #playunified. The “peer tutor” students who mentor and work with the Special Olympic athletes in classes look forward to these opportunities to play hard outside of the classroom setting. The smiles and hugs and high fives are innumerable, and the bonds stretch over the years.
Smiles and waves of recognition greeted one senior peer tutor from Riverton who found a student she had befriended in middle school. They quickly reunited for hugs and pictures after the game.
They explained they had remained friends and spent time on and off over the last few years. Sending pictures off to a parent who was unable to make it to the game, the mom quickly responded how it melted her heart to have someone like the senior in her daughter’s life.
Courtnie Worthen, Director of Unified Champion Schools for Special Olympics Utah, smiles proudly when she watches the students interact.
“We are raising the next generation of Special Education teachers,” she said. “[The best part of the day] is the inclusion. The students with and without disabilities are training and competing together and creating lifelong friendships on the field.”
Worthen is excited about the growth of Unified Sports. She reports they started five years ago with eight teams and had twenty teams competing for Canyons and Jordan. With eight more tournaments around the state happening before state championships. The growth of Unified is strengthening not just the games but the academic life of the students as well.
“What we are seeing is what happens on the field translates to the classroom,” Worthen said of the difference Unified Sports is making. “Students start to feel more comfortable; they feel more included, they feel like they belong, and they are part of their school. Test scores go up, attendance goes up, and just the overall culture of the school is incredible. We are celebrating difference, celebrating people’s ability to be part of something bigger than themselves and be a part of their school.”