Head coach Kaly Warner is loud and cheerful, often embarrassing her Rangeview High School athletes with a sideline celebration for their achievements. "I just act like it's the World Cup anytime we play any game," she says with excitement in her voice. "I'm so excited and I think that's what people might notice when I coach." Under normal circumstances, when the Special Olympics Colorado Unified Sports team is in the gym practicing, it's apparent who the head coach is.
But for the last year, things have looked a bit different. They haven't been able to see each other in person. All of the activities they would typically do were either shifted online or canceled. The screams, the happy dance and the visible message Warner sends off were missing. But while the global pandemic shut the world down and canceled all in-person Special Olympics events, the focus remained on the athletes.
"Our athletes are a very vulnerable population to getting sick and so we wanted to make sure they were definitely safe physically, so a lot of the things we offered were online," Warner says. "We actually started a lot of new sports this year to try and compensate for that."
"As athletic director and head boys' basketball coach, I have had the pleasure of working with Kaly and observing her commitment to her students and the growth of our Unified program," Shawn Palmer says about Warner. "During the last four years, she has started many new Unified Sports® at Rangeview; bowling, bocce ball, flag football, and cheerleading are the most recent.
"Not only has she been the main factor in the growth of these sports, she has had a significant positive impact on the culture of our school," he adds about her impact.
Whenever she adds a new sport to the program, she studies it extensively to make sure she can teach her students. While winning isn't everything, she challenges her teams to improve their skills and move up levels and always makes sure there are teaching opportunities intertwined with athletics.
Having coached Special Olympics Colorado for six years and being a special education teacher at Rangeview, she understands the growth of the Unified Sports® program as well as the importance of creating opportunities outside of athletics. She coaches four sports, including the Unified Colorado Rapids team (the team affiliated with the MLS club), plans the school's Unified prom, is an Athlete Leadership mentor, and acts as an SO Club advisor at her school. She advocates for her school and every school in the district to consider being a Unified Champion School.
Collaborating with other varsity teams and encouraging inclusion even when it's hard to do so shows the commitment Warner has to the community.
"Seeing my students with intellectual disabilities be confident and strut around in their uniforms in school just like any other athlete and getting varsity letters just makes me so happy," Warner says. "The fact they got to have that experience in high school is priceless to me."
"I think finding your passion at that age is one of the most important things and I think Unified Sports® really allows students to do that that haven't typically had that chance before," she continues.
"Kaly Warner is a one-of-a-kind coach who embodies the Special Olympics spirit," Megan Scremin, Special Olympics Colorado President and CEO, says. "During a challenging year, she never once gave up on her athletes and ensuring success of the Special Olympics mission."
Warner tried to make everyday life as normal as possible. Ensuring the students had the correct measurements, they started bocce. It is one of the few sports they can do individually over Zoom. Along with that, she says, "we played video games."
Hearing emotion in U.S. Youth Ambassador Elise Anton's voice as she asks if it's like Wii sports, Warner replies, “that would be amazing, but it's like a video game called Rocket League. It's a soccer game, but you're in a car playing soccer."
They picked that game because it's accessible to many people. They host multiple three-on-three games at once, and the varsity esports team has joined, helping each of the athletes involved in playing.
Warner’s impact goes far beyond just sports, as she stresses the message of "Mamba Mentality." Staying positive, never giving up and encouraging each other in all aspects of life.
"I make sure to encourage all students to try out for or to join anything that they're interested in," Warner says about opportunities for her students. "Whether that be the school play, the choir, esports. It doesn't even have to be Unified, like if they want to try out for varsity football go try out for varsity football.
"Encouraging all students to reach their potential and join opportunities is how I encourage inclusion," she says.
Her students take that message and act on it.
"Kaly has been a role model on and off the field. She always checks in on her team," Rangeview High School student and Special Olympics Colorado athlete Jason Horton says. "Not only is she my coach, she is my mentor in the Athlete Leadership Program and wants me to be better outside of sports as well."
Throughout the years, it's been apparent her enthusiasm is contagious as some of her former students return for surprise visits. Her impact on the community continues to grow and advocates for society to advance the way we look at inclusion. It shows students that regardless of ability, there are things we can do together.
Special Olympics is proud to partner with Gallagher, Official Sponsor of Special Olympics International Sport and Coach Programming. Gallagher’s support of the Special Olympics movement stems from a shared commitment to inclusion. Special Olympics and Gallagher are empowering athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to face their future with confidence—on and off the playing field—through quality coaching and sports training experiences.