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Special Olympics Finds Competitive Edge at NIRSA Flag Football Championships

It’s a cold and windy weekend in the quiet college town of Stillwater, Oklahoma, but despite it being winter break for Oklahoma State University, you can hear the cheers of students. The campus is playing host to the NIRSA Flag Football national championships, an opportunity for campus rec teams to come together and compete for the trophy and bragging rights. Among the competitors is a group of people truly committed to the inclusive power of sports: the seven teams in the Special Olympics College Club Unified division.

NIRSA supports leaders in college through recreational activities. Leadership development is such an important part of maturing for college students and, through NIRSA, they do just that “by fostering lifelong habits of wellbeing. Leadership, teamwork, dedication, and respect are among the many skills exercised by inclusive competition, fitness, and recreation,” it reads on NIRSA’s webpage.

Since 2016, the growth of Special Olympics Unified Intramural Sports leagues has been seen on college campuses across the country, including Oklahoma State University.

Brandon Bermea, who was a graduate assistant at Oklahoma State University in 2018 is now a coordinator within the Department of Wellness for his alma mater. When he came back to the school in 2022, he was able to start the Unified program. An organization and movement that is near and dear to his heart he says, “It’s super cool to see them [Oklahoma State] not even having a program to now playing at the national tournament and hosting.”

The University of Nebraska Lincoln Unified Flag Football team stands on the football field. They wear read shirts and stand behind a sign that says "NIRSA Championship Series".
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Unified flag football team was looking for a three-peat at the NIRSA Championships.

For several years, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has dominated the yearly championship game and has no intention of 2023 turning out any other way. Sailing through the early competition, the defending back-to-back champions seem poised to accomplish the rare feat of a three-peat. But they’ll need to get past newcomer Georgetown University first and the Hoyas clearly have different ideas about where the trophy should spend the next year.

“NIRSA is some of the highest levels of competition for our athletes — NIRSA is now on the same level as USA Games and World Games — especially as something athletes get to work towards and want to be chosen for,” Cat Lanigan, a communications director for Special Olympics DC and head coach for Georgetown says. “For many of our Special Olympics athletes, college sports — varsity or otherwise — are not an option for them, but NIRSA’s Unified Division created the space for people with disabilities to compete at this level anyway.”

As the players were warming up, fans and spectators gathered around the field at Colvin Recreation Center. It was evident that this was the game to see. Almost immediately players were making plays and setting the tone. It might have taken a miracle to complete, but the Hoyas knocked off the Huskers in pool play earlier in the tournament. It seemed like the championship game would be the same style.

A group of people stand on a football field, posing for a picture.
The 2023 NIRSA Unified Flag Football Championship game featured a great game between the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Georgetown University.

“I won’t lie, the last couple of days I’ve had a lot of ups and downs and a mental battle with myself, but I surround myself with great people and an amazing team,” Garrett Stibke, the starting quarterback for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln says. “At the end of the day, we are here to have a battle and it’s a good experience.”

Sophie Hill, a student and coach for Nebraska, has been involved with Special Olympics for several years. She has been in a variety of leadership roles and understands the importance of what they're chasing, but she also recognizes the importance of having fun and enjoying the moment.

“Our team’s just different. The dynamic between everyone is really exciting. Even with how competitive they are, they have such great sportsmanship.” Hill says knowing and understanding the true meaning of Special Olympics Unified Sports® is so important for this tournament and the impact it has on the entire Unified initiative. “This year we have a different crew with us so that’s really exciting to see everyone play their role on the team and kind of come to life.”

With a new team on the gridiron, the Nebraska delegation enjoys watching each athlete and Unified partner grow their confidence. They want each player to experience their own big moment in the game, so they all can understand how important teamwork is. “Everyone deserves to have that moment so seeing the team work hard to find that opportunity for each other was really heartwarming and a testament to the team’s bond,” Hill shares. “Being able to watch everyone shine and be lifted up by their teammates made me really proud.”

Expectations were high for the Huskers and rightfully so, as most of their games were blowouts. But when the Hoyas beat them in the national championship the conversation shifted to how the competition just got a whole lot better and how it should encourage other colleges and universities to compete.

The Hoyas believed in themselves since day one. And rightfully so. “From the first day we practiced at Georgetown we could see the passion, dedication, and football intelligence that both our Special Olympics DC athletes and Georgetown students possessed,” Lanigan says, adding a note to schools wanting to compete, “I hope the message that it sends to other schools considering Nationals is: DO IT! Push yourselves to compete at the National level. It is such a life-changing experience for both Special Olympics athletes and college students to be able to travel as a team, meet other Special Olympics College Clubs, and play a high level of competition.”

“It is always great to see new teams coming out to the competition,” Hill says. “The more new teams that come out, the more you can see how strong the Unified movement is in colleges.”

Three teammates pose for a photo. They're biting their medals and holding a plaque.
The Georgetown University Unified flag football team toppled the defending champs, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln during the 2023 NIRSA Championship.

In the end, Georgetown beat Nebraska 44-39 and Nebraska fell just short of the three-peat, but Unified Sports won in the end. The pool play games and the elimination games were competitive, showing just how strong a team can be when people of all abilities come together. It’s the perfect example of how powerful Unified Sports can be and the importance of giving every player, regardless of experience, a chance.

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