In the midst of March Madness, college basketball is everywhere you turn in North Carolina. When they aren’t watching their schools compete in the Big Dance, you can find hopeful college intramural teams practicing for the chance to go their own championship game. The sights and sounds are the same in the rec gyms as they are on national television, but what may surprise you is that many of these college intramural teams are Unified, featuring Special Olympics athletes as well as students.
Thanks to generous funding of ESPN, colleges across the Tar Heel state participate in the Special Olympics Unified Sports program, which brings people with and without intellectual disabilities together on the same team to compete.
“Unified Basketball grew out of schools that were originally offering Unified Flag Football through the partnership between Special Olympics and their Campus Recreation Departments,” explained Lauren Saulter, Special Olympics NC Sports Director.
With every shot, dribble and pass, Unified Sports bring about something even bigger than a win: Inclusion.
“I think that showing everyone what inclusion looks like through Unified Sports has really captured the essence of what our campus is about,” said Maggie DeWeese, a NC State University student.
Though they are competing to play at the Unified Intramural Championship, teams in the NC State-Special Olympics NC Unified Basketball league are mostly happy to just play together.
“I love meeting new friends at NC State and getting to play the sport I love with them,” James Leggett, a Special Olympics Wake County athlete, expressed. “It’s a dream come true.”
In another corner of the Triangle, students from Duke University and Special Olympics Durham County athletes have made huge strides this season.
“Playing with the Duke students makes the Special Olympics athletes even more competitive and challenges them to push themselves in ways they may not have had to before,” explained Jordan Richardson, a Duke University student.
With about 1.4 million people participating in Unified Sports around the globe, these programs will only continue to grow.
“Students and athletes want more Unified opportunities, so schools continue to expand on these programs,” said Saulter. “We’re starting the first Unified Volleyball program at Winston-Salem State University this year, for example, and that is very exciting.”
Students and Special Olympics athletes choose to Live Unified and Play Unified at every practice and every game, and they are never looking back!
To learn more about Unified Sports in North Carolina, visit http://sonc.net/sports-competitions/unified-sports/.