In a small country with a population of less than 400,000 people, there is a family with 32 children.
They hang out together, hold pizza parties, chat, laugh, but most of all, they play basketball.
Edvard Por Ingvarsson is one of the kids in the family that is Haukar Basketball, a Special Olympics club based in Hafnarfjordur, Iceland.
“I kind of just wanted to play basketball with people like me, autistic, Down syndrome, all that,” Ingvarsson said during a break in training, adding that his interaction with teammates extends much further than the borders of the hard basketball court.
“It’s not unusual for us to just go all the time. Especially a few years ago we just went all out, kind of just like a really big family.”
Professional basketball player Kristinn Jonasson started up Haukar Basketball in 2018 for family reasons of his own. His son, Kristofer Kristinnsson, was born with Down syndrome and there were no basketball clubs in Iceland where he could play.
“We threw an advertisement on the media [that] we were going to start this programme in 2018,” he said. “For the first practice we had three or four kids with disabilities that showed up, and it’s just gradually grown over the years.”
From the first handful of recruits, the club grew to almost 10 players by the following year and more than 20 players in its third year.
It is now big enough to form four teams, which are split into the junior (6-11) and senior (12-16) age groups during training. There are 12 players in the junior group, including one girl, and 20 players in the senior group, including six girls.
The teams are made up only of players with intellectual disabilities. They train at a high level and participate in tournaments against children without disabilities who might be from different age groups, but at a similar skill level as the Haukar Basketball players.
The only Special Olympics basketball team in Iceland, their first competitive match took place in January 2020 to great support from the local community.
“We had 150 people clapping. And they just kind of fuelled up from that and ever since then… Competition—they’re on!” Jonasson said.
Having played on competitive teams himself, Jonasson relishes seeing the improvement among the Haukar Basketball players. Growing their on-court skills is one of the club’s primary goals.
“Some of the kids, they did not know how to catch a ball,” Jonasson recalled. “They did not know how to dribble a ball or how to walk backwards.”
Hilmir Sveinsson from Grindavik, a town 50km from Hafnarfjordur, was one of the first children to sign up when he joined Haukar Basketball in 2018. Five years on, his transformation from the young boy who was struggling to pick up a basketball to the energetic boy on the court is remarkable.
“It has been amazing to see him and the other children grow,” said Solny Ingibjorg Palsdottir as she watched her son Hilmir shoot hoops and bump fists with the other players during a match. “Everyone has a chance just to be themselves.”
Ingvarsson has also seen his basketball skills and general athleticism improve as a result of training with the Haukar club. He is now an assistant coach with the junior team.
With the children’s playing level constantly improving, the club’s coaching staff is already eyeing their eventual debut at the Special Olympics World Games. That, however, is not the primary objective.
“What I think is most important and I am most proud of is to see the improvements in social skills, the friendships and our community,” said Bara Halfdanardottir, one of the club’s coaches. “We support and look out for each other. I remember in our first year the kids did not interact much with each other. However, today they are all great friends and a few of them have made really strong friendships off the court as well.”
In addition to helping its players get physically stronger and healthier, Haukar Basketball tackles the issue of isolation that people with disabilities often experience.
These efforts fall in line with the broader mission of the “Inclusion Through Sports for Children with Developmental Disabilities” project. Funded by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA and Norway Grants Fund for Regional Cooperation, the project aims to give children with developmental disabilities opportunities to participate in sports and thus better integrate into society.
Nine partners make up the consortium of the project: Special Olympics Bosnia and Herzegovina, Special Olympics Iceland, Special Olympics Lithuania, Special Olympics Montenegro, Special Olympics Romania, Special Olympics Slovakia, Special Olympics Europe Eurasia Foundation, Poznan University of Physical Activity, and Motivation Romania.
With Special Olympics Iceland and Haukar Basketball among the beneficiaries, Kristinn Jonasson has felt the positive outcomes of the project both as a coach and as a father.
“Children with disability are a bit isolated,” the club’s founder said. “When we started the programme, just to change one kid’s life, from that perspective, we have achieved our goal, to get the kids into the society, get them out of the isolation.”
Watching her son celebrate with his teammates while she cheered from the side-lines, Ingibjorg Palsdottir could not agree more.
“It’s so important in life to be part of something,” she said. “There are too many examples from the past that kids with special needs, they just don’t have a chance.
“[Here] everyone is happy. It’s good for everyone.”