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NCAA Division III Students and Special Olympics Athletes Build Strong Friendships Through Partnership

[From August 2021 to May 2022, The Decade of Inclusion interview series will capture the past, present and future of the partnership between Division III and Special Olympics. This is the second article in the 10-part series. Stay tuned to hear how the lives of student-athletes and Special Olympics athletes have been impacted over time, what is happening currently, and what’s still to come.]

Friendship, belonging, kindness, connection and community. These are just a few of the words Marie Stroman, former Division III National Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) member, and Annu Singleton, Special Olympics Maryland athlete, used to describe what inclusion and the Division III/Special Olympics partnership means to them.

Stroman, who was chair of DIII SAAC when the partnership was announced in January 2011, remembered when SAAC first decided to conduct a search for a national community service partner. She stated, “We recognized that Division III student-athletes were already pretty active in their communities and we wanted to find a way to demonstrate that nationally.” To ensure the right fit, Division III National SAAC identified specific criteria, including (1) accessibility, (2) personal interaction, (3) physical activity or athletics, (4) quantitative, and (5) nationally recognizable. Based on these elements, Stroman said Special Olympics quickly stood out as a “natural partner.”

4 people talk on a Zoom screen
Marie Stroman, Middle Atlantic Conference Associate Executive Director and Annu Singleton, Special Olympics athlete speak with RJ Nealon, Special Olympics North America Athlete Reporter and Abigail Newkirk, NCAA DIII SAAC member via Zoom.

In her current role as the associate executive director of the Middle Atlantic Conference (MAC), Stroman continues to support the DIII/Special Olympics partnership that she helped initiate a decade ago. This past spring, the MAC hosted a virtual spring break event where MAC student-athletes and local Special Olympics athletes—including Singleton—came together in a virtual format to work out, dance, meditate and discuss various ways to relax and release stress. Singleton, who began participating in Special Olympics events when he was in school, stated that he loves participating in these types of events because he is always learning new things both on and off the field.

Speaking of off the field, both Singleton and Stroman have participated in the annual Polar Plunge, which requires jumping in ice-cold water to raise funds for Special Olympics. Singleton said “getting in the cold frigid water … for a good cause” is one of his favorite Special Olympics activities. Stroman also enjoyed the event, noting that the fact so many people were willing to jump into icy water shows how much the community supports Special Olympics.

When asked what current student-athletes can do to ensure the partnership continues to build on its legacy of inclusion, Stroman said student-athletes should continue to find ways to make personal connections with Special Olympics athletes. Stroman noted that, while the current environment may require finding new and creative ways to interact, they can still build meaningful relationships.

Singleton and Stroman continued to build on these sentiments of friendship, belonging, connection and community when sharing their favorite quotes about inclusion. For Singleton it is, “No one gets left behind.” For Stroman it is, “When everyone is included, everyone wins.”

As evidenced by Stroman and Singleton, the 10-year partnership between Division III and Special Olympics has already forged a sense of community and connection where everyone wins and no one gets left behind.

Watch the entire interview with Marie and Annu here.

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