Southwest Washington’s Unified Sports program keeps growing, bringing together athletes of various abilities
Prairie High School hosted a huge high school basketball tournament on Saturday, one that determined teams that would qualify for the state championships.
Only, it was not the typical district tournament, with all the results posted on social media, and media outlets reporting on every result.
There was no girls team, nor boys team. It was co-ed, in fact.
But it was varsity.
It was a way for the athletes to represent their school.
And it was a chance for coaches to coach, officials to officiate, and fans to cheer.
It was competitive.
It was Unified.
Southwest Washington’s Unified Sports held an all-day district basketball tournament at Prairie, with teams from two different levels competing for the right to go to state.
Unified takes athletes with disabilities and teams them up with partners, able-bodied players, to create a team representing their school in hopes of experiencing athletic glory along with the promise of bridging gaps and creating friendships.
In Unified Sports, the athletes are the ones with special needs, and the partners are able-bodied classmates. In basketball, three athletes and two partners are on the court at the same time.
“I’ve met a lot of friends,” through Unified, said Prairie junior athlete Elijah Ziolko. “Spending time as a team, getting together, and getting so many points, doing it together.”
Grayson Allen is one of Prairie’s partners. This is his second year with the school’s Unified program, but he grew up knowing all about the importance of Unified Sports. It is close to his heart. Grayson’s older brother was a Unified athlete.
“I get a lot of enjoyment out of it, just seeing the athletes have a good time, being able to fulfill their want to play a sport, to fulfill their happiness in playing a sport,” Allen said. “It puts a smile on my face seeing them happy to play and helping them along to do what they want, to have fun.”
Allen and the other partners understand their roles when on the basketball court.
“Our task is to keep the flow of the game moving, help facilitate passes, help them know where they need to be on the floor,” Allen said. “It’s not about us. We shoot from time to time, but we try to make sure the focus is on the athletes and that they’re getting their shots and enjoying their time.”
Unified Sports has been around in the country since the late 1980s. It arrived in Clark County 10 years ago. The program is a partnership with the Special Olympics and the Department of Education. Every year, the program grows, with more schools participating. And many schools are going over and beyond expectations.
Skyview High School, as an example, was recently designated as a Special Olympics Unified Champion School. Only a handful of schools across that nation earn such a banner.
“I am proud of our students and faculty for embracing our equity and inclusion work and for ensuring they are applied to all school activities,” said Andy Meyer, Skyview’s principal, in a statement in December when Skyview was recognized. “I hope the Unified Champion School designation will inspire future generations of students to continue this legacy of excellence.”
At Prairie High School, senior Unified athletes are recognized just like the senior basketball players on the boys and girls basketball teams. They have poster-size photos hanging in the gymnasium.
Donna Eskelson-Smith is the head coach for Prairie’s Unified basketball program. She has been doing it for years.
“The satisfaction of these guys smiling and doing great,” she said. “Build our team, and it spreads into Prairie High School.”
That’s right. That is the goal of Unified Sports, to bring everyone together.
Morgan Larche is the director of the program for the state.
“One of the cool things about sports is it is a pathway to friendships,” Larche said. “We all have differences, but we’re all supporting each other and contributing to the game.”
Ziolko said he walks the halls at Prairie High School during the day and is greeted with high-fives from his teammates, those with special needs and his able-bodied teammates.
Allen loves that aspect of Unified Sports, too. The athletes and partners are not just teammates on game days.
“It’s like a family. It’s a big family at Prairie,” Allen said. “Any time we see each other at school, it’s high-fives, say hi, ask each other how we’re doing. These relationships will last a long time.”
“Unified Sports really gives students a sense of belonging and connectivity to their schools,” Larche added. “They get to represent their schools like other athletes.”
The friendships go beyond the campus, too.
“A lot of times, because of the friendships made on this team, they continue to be friends after they graduate,” Larche said. “They have a sense of belonging. They have their group. They go to people’s houses and hang out. It’s really awesome.”
At Prairie on Saturday, there were 11 teams representing eight Southwest Washington schools. (Some schools had two teams playing in different divisions.) Much like varsity, junior varsity, and C-squads for traditional high school athletic teams, Unified has three levels. Division I is highly competitive with every player on the court having the necessary athletic skills to play at a high level. Division II is like JV. Division III is the player-development level.
On Saturday, Division I and Division II held their district championships. Skyview won Division I while Evergreen took the title in Division II. (Division III will play at a later date.)
The state championships are held in March.
Oh, and a nice touch after every game: A sportsmanship pin is presented to one athlete on every team, designated by their opponent.
After all, Prairie, Skyview, and so many other schools in Southwest Washington are United in Unified Sports.
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