Throughout the country, colleges and universities are demonstrating what it truly means to be a part of the inclusion revolution. Students on campus, also known as Unified partners, are joining together with Special Olympics athletes to compete in Special Olympics Unified Sports® competitions. Unified Sports is an integral part of Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools® — a program that strategically creates sports, leadership, and whole school engagement opportunities for students with and without intellectual disabilities.
In partnership with NIRSA: Leaders in Collegiate Recreation, since 2016, the growth of Special Olympics Unified Intramural Sports leagues is seen on college campuses across the country.
The University of Iowa is home to the 2022 NIRSA Championship Series National Basketball Champions in the Unified division. Each member of the team makes up this incredible, inclusive family. Special Olympics athletes and Unified partners work together and support each other before, during, and after practice. They know each other’s likes and dislikes – the friendships are genuine, and it translates to the basketball court. On the court, the team chemistry is evident. The team moves smoothly, and members play to each other’s strengths. “We trust each other. Even if we don’t win, we have fun,” said Hayli Schumacher, a member of the University of Iowa Unified Basketball team. This statement is a testament to their unity on and off the court.
That team chemistry was put to the test during the 2022 NIRSA National Basketball Championships when the University of Iowa battled it out against the fierce competition – proof that Unified Sports® are growing in popularity. When the Unified Sports® division was first introduced to the NIRSA Championship Series in 2011, Unified basketball had just four teams. In 2019, the Unified basketball division grew to 12 teams – proof that Unified Sports are growing in popularity.
In Kentucky, members of the University of Louisville Unified basketball team have waited more than 2 years for their chance to compete against teams from across the country and they see the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games as their chance for a comeback. Due to COVID, the 2020 NIRSA Championships were canceled and in the two years that followed, the team stayed patient and continued preparing.
On the University of Louisville Unified team, there are two Special Olympics athletes who participated in Unified Sports® in high school before transitioning onto collegiate Unified Sports®. Their experience is important in helping welcome new members to the team. One of the Unified partners is also a coach at a local high school, leading the next generation of Unified partners. Each member of the team has the potential to grow the Special Olympics movement in their unique way, something NIRSA is playing a major role in in.
NIRSA offers Unified Sports® divisions at regional and national tournaments in basketball, soccer, flag football, and esports. After a great experience officiating flag football and basketball games at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle, NIRSA student officials will once again officiate flag football as well as basketball games at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando, Florida.
NIRSA and Special Olympics will continue collaborating to bring Unified intramural sports to campuses across the country and expand the Unified divisions at regional and national Championship Series tournaments; increasing the opportunities for people with and without intellectual disabilities to come together through the power of sport.
To learn more about the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games, visit www.2022specialolympicsusagames.org.
For more information about Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools®, please visit GenerationUnified.org.
For more information about NIRSA: Leaders in Collegiate Recreation, please visit https://nirsa.net/nirsa/.