Sports have always been a powerful force for bringing people together, and Special Olympics Unified Sports® is no exception. Unified Sports brings people with and without intellectual disabilities together to train and compete on the same team. One such team, comprised of father and son, Bryan and Kyle Karren, represented Special Olympics Utah at the 2023 Special Olympics North America Tennis and Pickleball Championship in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
This year, the tournament introduced pickleball as a new and rapidly growing sport, adding an exciting twist to the competition. When asked about the decision to include pickleball, Julie Jilly, Vice President of the Professional Pickleball Registry (PPR), explained that it is the fastest-growing sport in the country, providing athletes with the opportunity to develop strategy, patience, and mental sharpness.
Although it was the first time pickleball was included at the SONA event, it was clear that the Karrens were no strangers to the sport. They dominated the Unified Doubles division on the first day of the competition, remaining undefeated. Kyle Karren, affectionately known as "Pickles," seemed destined to excel at pickleball, despite it not being his primary sport.
Since 2017, Kyle has been a member and captain of the Real Salt Lake Unified soccer team. However, this year he faced a difficult decision between competing in the SONA Pickleball Championship or participating in Special Olympics Utah's Fall Sports Classic with his soccer team. Despite his love for soccer, Kyle chose pickleball, as he and his father, Bryan, have been entrusted with the task of growing the sport for Special Olympics Utah in 2024.
Looking back on their journey, Bryan recalled, "It all started three years ago when I was heavily into golf. One day, Pickles came home after playing pickleball with his friends and insisted I give it a try. Since that day, pickleball has taken over our lives." The Unified pair acknowledged that although they were initially crushed in their first tournament, it was evident that pickleball was a natural fit for Kyle. They joined Club Pickleball USA, took lessons, and haven't looked back since.
Fast forward to 2023, and the Karrens are making a splash in the pickleball community. Their love and dedication to the sport have paid off, as they proudly brought home the gold medal from the SONA Pickleball Championship.
Special Olympics is not solely about winning medals; it is about forging lifelong friendships and overcoming challenges. Bryan and Kyle Karren embody this spirit. "Special Olympics offers so much love, so much compassion, so much community. You don't find that anywhere else,” Kyle Karren stated when asked about what Special Olympics means to him.
The bond between the father-son Unified pair is evident in the way they play, fueled by their love for each other and the sport. They will take that passion back to Special Olympics Utah, bringing more athletes and Unified partners to the pickleball courts to experience the sport that has captured their hearts.