Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Special Olympics Michigan Sets Standard with Two Teams at NIRSA Championships at State-Of-The-Art Facilities

It’s a crisp sunny day in late spring at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The 933-acre city campus sits beautifully on the shores of Lake Mendota. Sitting on a unique piece of land, the campus lays as an isthmus, as it represents a narrow strip which connects two larger landmasses but also separates two bodies of water. The community here raves about it and tells anybody who will listen. They’re famous for their cheese, and they love their Badgers football, but during the 2024 NIRSA National Basketball Championships hosted April 12-14, they took pride in celebrating athletes from various colleges and universities around the nation. “This means a lot to our team,” Aaron Hobson, the director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Recreation and Wellbeing, says about being the host site.

Over the past decade, the university has done what was needed and saw the dream of hosting the tournament come to fruition starting with updated and state-of-the-art facilities. “It’s a chance for us to highlight our team and highlight the incredible facility we have but more specifically really create an experience for our students across the country,” Hobson shares.

JoJo Heimerl is a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is the current president of the campus's Special Olympics College Club. She is also this year’s head coach for the Unified basketball team playing in the tournament. Heirmerl has had a long-standing relationship with the organization starting when she was five years old attending Special Olympics events with her aunt who was an athlete. She can still remember going to bowling events at the local Madison bowling alley in support of her aunt.

“It means everything,” Heimerl says about being able to participate in such an event at the school she attends. “I think the fact we’re able to host it here in our facilities is amazing, these facilities are so well kept, and the staff is amazing.”

On day one of the championships 34 games kicked off the action. With games happening at the Nicholas Recreation Center and the Bakke Recreation and Wellbeing Center, there was much excitement in the air. The sounds of squeaky shoes, thuds of the basketball hitting the wooden courts, and player voices could be heard echoing throughout the gymnasium. On courts one, five, and six there was a different feel to the games.

Seven schools throughout the Special Olympics North America Region are participating in the college club Special Olympics Unified Sports® division. A division that helps promote social inclusion through participation in sports by bringing athletes with and without intellectual disabilities together making the game that much more competitive.

“I think the Unified division is really the epitome of who we are, it’s an opportunity in a unique way for our staff to learn, to engage, and to be civic leaders,” Hobson says. “It’s just an incredible opportunity that we learn just as much from our athletes as we do from our [Unified] partners.”

Two Unified basketball teams compete.
Western Michigan (in gold jerseys) faced tough competition from the University of Wisconsin-Madison during the NIRSA Basketball Championship.

Special Olympics Michigan decided to bring two teams for a chance at a national championship. After a seemingly mild winter in Michigan terms, the weather finally became an issue with the State tournament. Originally to be held at the Special Olympics Michigan Training Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on March 22nd the tournament was canceled due to a snowstorm. Kayla Kuczynski, who is the Unified Champion Schools coordinator, says the decision to bring two teams was a “happy accident.”

“We knew Western, and U of M were going to be two competitive teams at that tournament, and we didn’t want to make the call of which one to bring since we had to cancel the tournament,” Kuczynski says. “Usually, the winner of that tournament would advance to nationals.”
Jack Perry, who goes by Boomer—claiming it as his real name—serves as the head coach of the University of Michigan Unified team. His excitement about the chance to play in the tournament was palpable. Perry talks about how the weekend has been long, but it’s been filled with many memorable moments and details the team’s ability to start the second day of the tournament fresh and ready to play. Michigan defeated Regis University, 54-25, on Saturday morning. In a game that wasn’t close, both teams showcased individual talent and highlighted team play.

Michigan athletes Jaishuan Rayford and Anas Abdeljalil were standout players. Unified partners Zoe Meltz and Olivia Wright were seen on the bench demonstrating great sportsmanship, holding colorful signs in support that were made the night before at the Unified social gathering.

Two Unified basketball teams pose for a group photo. Members are wearing uniforms and smiling for the photo.
The two Michigan teams may not have returned to the Great Lakes State with the championship, but both schools walked away from the NIRSA Championships with a wealth of experience.

For Western Michigan, the road hasn’t been as easy, but they learned and got better throughout the tournament. Matched against the two toughest teams to start the tournament, it was quite the adjustment. At Western Michigan, this is the first time any of the players have played at the national level.

Max Hinga is a Special Olympics athlete who has played with Western Michigan for two years and has enjoyed the opportunity. “It’s been great,” Hinga says about the tournament. “I’ve never competed at this level for Special Olympics at all and it’s been really fun and competitive.”

Gabriel VanderWoude, who founded the Special Olympics College Club at Western Michigan, says he’s really learned a lot from talking to other players and coaches from opposing teams. In only his sophomore year, he really honed in on learning and getting ideas on how to build off this year. While he emphasizes that this might not be the year they win a national championship, in the years to come they expect to be more competitive.

During the first round of elimination play, both Michigan teams lost: Michigan to Oregon, the eventual national champions, 49-43, and Western Michigan to Wisconsin, a Final Four team, 43-39. But not all was gone. On the morning of championship Sunday, both Michigan teams faced off in a friendly scrimmage. It’s not official, and the outcome doesn’t decide anything, but it’s the start of something special—a relationship between two schools on opposite sides of the state revolutionizing the inclusion movement on campuses.

Recommended Content

Bethany College Creates First Special Olympics College Club in West Virginia

When Allison Paxton, senior track student-athlete at Bethany College was in first grade, doctors diagnosed her with a form of high-functioning autism.
2 Min Read

Bates Special Olympics College Club Members Share Impact of NCAA DIII and Special Olympics Partnership

Bates Special Olympics Club was one of 12 Division III institutions and over 40 colleges across the country to participate in the Special Olympics Virtual College Championship Week presented by Special Olympics and ESPN this past spring.
2 Min Read

Two Members of National Work Team Share Bond Forged Through Special Olympics

Special Olympics brings people together, even when they least expect it. For Mercy Ogutu and Britney Bautista, who live across the country from each other, Special Olympics is exactly how their connection began .
2 Min Read