When the Norwalk girls’ basketball team was putting the finishing touches on a remarkable undefeated season last winter in the championship game at Mohegan Sun, the halftime show featured equally committed athletes who might not necessarily get the deserved attention that their counterparts receive.
A group of Norwalk parents watched their kids run up and down the court, scoring the occasional basket and displaying their skills. When the final horn sounded, you’d be hard pressed to argue which set of parents were the proudest.
These moments are created in large part to the CIAC’s Unified Sports program, which has seen tremendous growth over the past three decades. The partnership between Special Olympics Connecticut and the CIAC began in 1992 — the first with any state high school sports association — with the goal of every school having a program for special needs athletes.
“I had one parent who had tears in his eyes,” said Norwalk Athletic Director Doug Marchetti. “Seeing his daughter running up and down the court was something he never thought she would have the opportunity to do. To be able to witness that was incredible.”
Unified Sports are no longer reserved to brief halftime exhibitions to provide entertainment during varsity action. Instead, they have grown to become a part of virtually every athletic department in the state. It’s also contributed to breaking down the barriers with special education students in the school setting. Soccer was the first sport played when the relationship began.
“It’s sports in a more pure way,” said CIAC Unified Director Bob Hale, who added that he received a heartfelt letter from a Norwalk parent following the event. “I think it’s because you’re not having any animosity against your opponents; the feeling is so positive that it’s just transformational.”
According to the CIAC, 97 percent of its high schools have some form of Unified program. The popularity has exploded in recent seasons and a drive toward the lower grades is underway. Age isn’t a barrier to entry in traditional sports, and shouldn’t be for special needs athletes, Hale said.
“There shouldn’t be an age where kids can’t be included,” Hale said. “If we can get the idea that everyone is an important contributor then we’ll be better as a whole.”
The plan for the future is to get even more schools involved at the middle school level. There are some challenges, however, as there is often no athletic director at this level to facilitate involvement. Getting ADs from towns to push the program onto the lower grades is the best possible solution, Hale added.
An important factor to the recent growth has been the transition in responsibility from the state level to the league commissioners. Leagues have taken more ownership in running events and encouraging its member schools to participate and expand their programs. This has partly occurred because athletic departments have taken ownership from special education departments that some argue are already stretched for time and resources. It’s also allowed events to go from the state level to the local level to accommodate more schools.
“When I started 15 years ago we probably had a handful of schools that had unified sports,” said SCC Commissioner Al Carbone. “Now all of our 17 (non-parochial) schools have multiple sports in their program … We’ve always had this issue at principal-Athletic Director level of where does unified sports fall? I think our athletic departments have taken leadership.”
A key figure in the program was former director George Synnott, who passed away July 20 after a battle with cancer at age 73. He retired from the program in June, passing the torch to Hale.
Synnott was the driving force behind many programs across the state over the past decade.
“He was just so genuine,” said Newtown’s Kathleen Davey, who launched the program at her school before retiring in June “If he said something he did it, he always thought of others before he thought of himself. He helped us along the way and guided us on the steps to take.”
Track and basketball dominate the makeup of unified programs across the state, but other sports are slowly coming along. Bowling is a popular winter sport within the SCC, while volleyball is also on the rise. Though not under the Unified Sports umbrella, schools have added music and theater programs to their offerings.
“We try to do everything a regular varsity program would,” said Shelton unified coach Karen Devonshuk. “We do all the drills, layups, passing. On competition day they wear their shirts to school and are pumped going to each class.”
If traditional sports require the tireless effort of many, Unified takes that to another level. In addition to the coaches who devote their time to the betterment of their kids, student volunteers are the backbone of the program.
“It’s a critical part of the engine,” Hale said. “The thing is they realize they can afford to spend time and give back. But what they get is so much more; they develop so much more from those connections, and it allows (special needs athletes) to make friends and become integrated with the school and create a setting of inclusion.”
Students — who are often athletes from other varsity sports — are paired with special needs athletes to help teach them the game. The relationships built between this exchange go beyond the activity and translates to school.
“I’ve seen some nice friendships between the regular ed and the special ed students,” Devonshuk said. “Last year one of our track girls wanted to have a picnic and invite all the team, and her mom was afraid the regular ed kids wouldn’t want to come. Sure enough this was the nicest picnic I’ve ever been to. … A lot of the friendships have stood the test of time.”
Marchetti, Norwalk’s athletic director, knows this first hand. His daughter, Jessie, is part of the Unified Program at Trumbull and noted the impact of the partner relationship.
“The way the kids have treated her and accepted her is great,” Marchetti said. “When she sees them in church or the store it’s ‘hey Jessie.’ It’s really great to see how kids statewide have embraced the athletes and I think that relationship continues to grow.”
All the help is required when league-wide events are put together. Most consist of double-digit schools and hundreds of athletes. The Floyd Little Athletic Center has hosted the SCC for many of its events. The coaches don’t treat their athletes with kit gloves, either, as practices can be just as intense as their varsity counterparts, Devonshuk said.
The most important expense? Post-game pizza and medals honoring the athletes.
“A lot of schools are hosting it and trying to make it a school-wide event,” Carbone said. “That’s been nice to see; you’re seeing facilities open up their doors, they know it has been getting a lot of attention with social media. It really brings a school spirit.”
A drive toward making the games competitive was pitched by the CIAC recently due to the exploding popularity, including recent Special Olympics Games being broadcast on ESPN. The pros and cons to that are obvious.
“We’ve gotten reports people want to be competitive, with leagues having results,” Carbone said. “I’m not sure where that’s going; does that take away from what the whole objective is? I tread pretty slowly on that.”
The growth of Unified Sports is perceived by some as providing a platform for underappreciated members of the student body. While that is true, it’s also instead a lesson to everyone else, who are now finally able to see what these kids can do.
“I think it’s a skill lacking in everyone,” Hale said. “It’s education for us on how to interact with folks that are different from us. I find that kids with intellectual disabilities are eager to make new friends; we just have to be more open.”