I was skeptical, but I checked. She’s right. Originated by Special Olympics, this unusual style of school competition has grown rapidly despite little notice. Allied sports are a small offshoot. Some schools use the term corollary sports. The major part of the movement is called unified sports, which has 272,000 U.S. participants in 6,473 schools, about half of them high schools.
How could that be? High school sports are supposed to be just for the best. When I argue with people who don’t think college-level Advanced Placement classes should be open to all high-schoolers, they say to me: “Not everybody gets to play on the football team.”
Why not? In big-time college and professional sports, it’s about winning, and money. But aren’t our children in high school to learn? They might not get into games unless the score is 51-0, but they would improve if they practiced with the team. Unified sports — another gift to the country from the disability rights movement — goes even further, honoring innovative coaches of the past.
Recent obituaries for John Gagliardi of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., said he won more games — 489 — than any college football coach. He earned four national championships. He never cut anybody.
There have been other coaches like that, usually praised for their wins, not their inclusiveness. My high school cross-country coach, Connie Smith, was nationally known for his strong teams. He let anyone in. He also never let anyone out. When I tried to quit (I didn’t realize he was going to make us run ALL THE TIME), he said: “No you’re not.”
The unified sports movement is active in Maryland, which is not surprising. Special Olympics began with a summer day camp at Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s home in Potomac, Md., more than 50 years ago. The Maryland Fitness and Athletic Equity for Students with Disabilities Act passed in 2008. It requires all school districts to have programs like the one at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland that has Elizabeth so excited.
Those who love Italy will be pleased with this news: While there are unified teams in basketball, track, tennis, bowling, softball and team handball, one of the most popular is bocce.
Rolling two-pound bocce balls toward a smaller ball dates to the Roman Empire. Two millennia later, Montgomery County, Md., schools provide precise instructions for laying out a 6o-by-12-foot bocce court on the floor of your high school gym.
The competitions, Elizabeth said, allow her “to meet kids from all over the county, with learning disabilities and without, who are actively fighting the stigma that follows LD students around.”
Colin Dennis, a sophomore at Severna Park High School in Anne Arundel County, Md., said the program “gives everyone a chance to play a varsity sport in high school. You have fun, make friends, promote good sportsmanship and it provides opportunities to many who might not have tried out for a high school sport.”
Julia Bagnell, a senior at Old Mill High School in Anne Arundel, said “unified sports are competitive and can get pretty intense when the county championship rolls around. However, what makes them so unique is that win or lose, the positivity among the athletes remains the same.”
In these programs, Elizabeth plays bocce and softball, Colin plays bocce and tennis, and Julia plays bocce.
Andrea Cahn, senior director of Unified Champion Schools for the Special Olympics, said schools have different ways of handling the program. It can be “varsity students playing in their non-varsity sport” with students who have disabilities, she said, or “more a recruitment effort to engage kids that normally wouldn’t play sports.”
Some of the fun is your team beating the other team. But you are also sharing a game once denied you with people more like you than you thought. That feeling outlasts memory of the final score.