'A place that creates unity:' Unified sports teams up disabled, non-disabled athletes

2013-05-13T00:00:00Z 2013-05-17T13:19:10Z 'A place that creates unity:' Unified sports teams up disabled, non-disabled athletesBy ZACH BENOIT zbenoit@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

If you think the Special Olympics are only for athletes with intellectual disabilities, it's time to readjust that view.

Through its international Unified Sports program, thousands of Special Olympics athletes and other community members, called partners, team up together, and Special Olympics Montana is no different.

"It really adds another dimension," said Bob Norbie, SOMT president and CEO. "It brings folks with and without disabilities together and they train and compete as teammates."

With the 2013 State Summer Games quickly approaching, dozens of unified teams are preparing.

LeAnn Dolly-Powell, SOMT outreach director, said that last year, about 70 Unified Partners — athletes without disabilities — competed in the 2012 State Summer Games and she expects a similar turnout this year.

"When we say partners, that is the volunteer that is playing on the team," she said. "Ideally, it takes athletes who qualify as Special Olympics athletes and partners them with those who do not."

Overall, there are 175 Unified Partners signed up with SOMT.

Unified Sports can apply to a number of the Olympic-style sports within the games, from track and field to soccer, from Bocci ball to aquatics.

It's part of a lager Special Olympics program called Project Unify, which "uses sports and education programs to activate young people to develop school communities where all youth are agents of change — fostering respect, dignity and advocacy for people with intellectual disabilities," according to the Special Olympics website.

While there are opportunities for Unified Sports programs for adults, much of the program in Montana focuses on getting into local schools and working with youth.

Norbie said that it creates a level of understanding through everybody working together that might not otherwise be achieved.

"It accomplishes what we set out to do, broadly and deeply in our communities," he said. "It often works best when we bring school-aged kids together who would maybe not normally do this and teach them to enjoy this as teammates on the court and friends off the court."

In many cases, students who sign up as partners at a school take on a mentor-like role with other students at the school who participate in Special Olympics.

"It offers recreation, competitive and player development elements," Dolly-Powell said. "It's not just teaching the athletes because we have Special Olympic athletes that are better than the Unified Partner at a sport."

For teams that compete in Unified Sports, each event has modified scoring and rules to account for and accommodate the Special Olympics athletes and partners.

"There are certain rules that go along with each sport," Dolly-Powell said. "For example, if it's a triathlon, it's a team triathlon and each participant does a different leg. Or, for kayaking, we'll have two kayakers in the same boat."

Participants come from all over the state and Vicki Dunham, SOMT's chief operating officer, said that most regular Special Olympics competitions have at least a handful of Unified Sports competitions, including at the upcoming summer games in Billings.

Officially sanctioned in 1989, it's been a longtime component of Special Olympics that officials say benefits all involved.

"The main thing that comes out of it is it proves an opportunity to have a new and enjoyable experience," said Dolly Powell. "It demonstrates everyone's ability and allows them to make new friends and meet new people."

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