Unified Sports. Playing for the pure joy of it.
Unified Sports came to Torrington on Thursday afternoon. Teams from Torrington, Oxford, Crosby and Wilby took part in soccer games. Their smiles on the court are priceless.
TORRINGTON: The unbridled joy in their faces make it hard not to smile the entire time you are in their presence.
They don’t care about stats or personal accolades, they are just as happy high-fiving an opponent as they are celebrating a goal of their own.
With State Tournament action flying around the area as the fall high school sports season wraps up, there was an event inside Torrington High School that transcended all that was going on outside the Connie Donahue Gymnasium.
I’m talking about Unified Sports.
Sometime last year, Torrington AD Mike McKenna told me about this movement and how anybody who wants to understand the pure joy of being part of a team, making friends and celebrating the little things, should attend one of these events.
He was right, I was hooked and couldn’t help but smile for the 90-minutes I spent in the gym watching teams from Torrington, Crosby, Wilby and Oxford play a little indoor soccer in the gym named after the most successful head coach in THS history who would have smiled ear to ear at what we saw on Thursday.
Unified Sports is a registered program of the Special Olympics that combines approximately equal numbers of athletes with and without intellectual disability on sports teams for training and competition.
Every person with intellectual disabilities who are at least five years old are eligible to participate in Unified Sports. The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) joined forces with the CT Special Olympics in 1992 and it has been growing in popularity ever since.
All schools in the state are eligible and encouraged to participate and a year ago, McKenna went to a long-time friend and coach Gerry Carbone with the hopes the former THS legend would take the lead and get the program started.
“I asked Gerry if he wanted to do this and he never hesitated and just ran with it,” McKenna said. “We just started last spring but Gerry has helped this take off. When you join, they encourage you to take your time and let things develop over time but because of his passion and commitment, we started playing right away.”
As a high school coach, you could safely say that the satisfaction you get from coaching high school students is balanced at best with the grieve they get over playing time, parents complaints and the like.
With Unified Sports, there is no pain, just a soul gratifying bucket of gain.
“These kids are so appreciative of what we do,” Carbone said. “They are always saying thank you and really love being part of this.”
Each team has students from various high school teams as mentors. They play side by side with kids who would never be able to do so in the highly competitive world of HS sports.
It allows relationships to form in places they never would before. The interaction the groups have between them translates into something pretty special in the hallways of the schools as well.
“We get to hang out with these kids during and after school and can talk about how much fun they have while playing,” Raider sophomore standout Dom Sabia said. “To watch them play and be so happy is great for them and for us. We high five in the hallway during school and it’s a great environment for them.”
Think about it. High School is a tough time for any kid. Groups and clicks have been a part of the fabric of it since the beginning of time.
Having a Unified Sports program at these schools has allowed students to meet more of their peers than they ever would have before.
The kids on the court volunteering are the special ones, the ones that get it and get so much out of this themselves.
Take Wilby sophomore Kasandra Mangual who juggles cheerleading, ROTC, Unified Sports and more in just her second year of high school.
And oh yeah, she’s also on the State Board of Unified Sports as well.
“I love this so much,” Mangual said. “I get to connect with kids who get the chance to be friends with other kids and feel comfortable. They have so much fun and enjoy being able to connect with others.”
Wilby AD Steve Baldwin brought two of his four teams up to Torrington with a banner that hung on the wall from this summer’s NVL picnic that included dozens of local kids in the program and is being seen state wide this year.
The Wilby program is now in its fourth year and growing while Oxford has over 50 members this year.
For the Torrington event, long time contributors to the students at THS, Mike Fritch Sr. and R. J. Poniatoski were on hand volunteering their time for the good of the students and to support the effort.
It’s not just about soccer though. Basketball, bowling and track and field are part of the fun as well for these athletes who make you remember why sports play such a big role in the shaping of our students.
More than sports, it’s about the interacting between students that may normally never meet.
Unified Sports brings them together.
McKenna was right. To gain a little perspective on what’s important, parents and players at the high school level should sit in on one of these events and remember why games are played.
For the sheer joy and happiness that radiates from each of these Unified Sports athletes faces.