The athletes trading high fives and smack talk around the track wore the colors of nearly 100 different schools. They watched with intensity as their teammates moved on the field, keeping their fingers crossed for a shot at the state finals. They danced together in celebration after a great race and screamed encouragement to runners who fell behind.
While it might sound like any other high school sporting event, a couple of things were different about the May 30 competition at Central Michigan University:
What it means to be unified
Unified Sports brings together students, with and without intellectual disabilities, to train and compete together in sports such as basketball, soccer, track and field, and more. Playing as a team lets participants learn about each other without stereotypes, preconceived notions or attitudes about people with different abilities.
"This is the truest form of sport. It takes out a lot of what we think of as the negative parts of competition and embraces good sportsmanship and the spirit of friendly competition," said Dan Ekonen, senior director of program leadership at Special Olympics Michigan.
"The magic that happens on the teams is hard to describe but impossible to miss when you see it for the first time."
CMU students served as mentors and guides for the Unified Sports Leadership Launch.
Leaders make a game plan
A group of 35 CMU students from the Leadership Institute led the Oct. 26 Unified Sports Leadership Launch conference for more than 200 Michigan-area high school students. Training focused on diversity, inclusion and acceptance.
"These students begin to see themselves as leaders for inclusion in their high school, and now they see they can continue that work in college. They find mentors and role models in the CMU students they meet," Ekonen said.
Many of the participants returned home to start new programs in their schools or help out with existing programs. Some also became volunteers with their local chapters of Special Olympics, and still others are now members of the Unified Sports
Youth Activation Committee, which helped to organize the Unified Sports Day at CMU.
No matter how they get involved first — as a player, a coach, a volunteer or simply a cheerleader for social inclusion — it's a connection Ekonen believes they'll keep for life.
"They become part of the program and then become part of the mission. They want to share their experience with others and become passionate advocates for acceptance and inclusion."
CMU University Communications interns Sophie Bates and Daniel Square assisted with this story.
Games that matter
- Thousands of athletes, spectators, coaches and volunteers filled campus May 30-June 1 for the Special Olympics Michigan State Summer Games. See the Facebook gallery.
- CMU students gain valuable career and life experience as Special Olympics interns.