It all came with spirited competition, cheers, and big smiles.
Special Olympics Unified Sports made a successful debut at the CIF North Coast Section Track and Field Meet of Champions at Cal’s Edwards Stadium, with seven schools participating in the 100 meters and long jump.
In the unified format, Special Education students were paired with general education students, and their marks were combined. Who won? Try everyone.
“It was really exciting,” said Cyrus Nassersaeid, the Unified Sports Manager for Special Olympics Northern California. “It was a lot, a lot, a lot of fun. … This is something that’s been coming. We weren’t sure exactly what sport would lend itself to us getting involved in the section, but (NCS commissioner Gil Lemmon) has been terrific. I’ve learned so much from him this year.”
About 15 to 20 schools participated in Unified Sports in the NCS Area track and field meets and the Meet of Champions.
Unified Sports is already in full swing throughout the section. The Bay Valley Athletic League has basketball, soccer and bowling. East Bay and Mission Valley athletic league schools are also holding events. There were unified basketball exhibitions in Marin County high schools over the winter.
Nassersaeid was “grateful” to all the schools that participated at Meet of Champions after only receiving notice about the competition in late January or early February.
“I’m just really grateful, and our organization Special Olympics is too, to the section and especially the schools and the students that said, ‘Hey, we want to give this a try,’” he said.
James Logan junior Ricardo Salas, an enthusiastic unified volunteer for Colts track coach Lee Webb, was paired with Juan Gomez at the Meet of Champions.
“It was really fun because I got to hang out with Juan,” Salas said. “Me and Juan are pretty good friends. I also do a lot with (Special Olympics), so it was fun to see other Special Needs students from other schools doing it, rather than just seeing people that I recognize.”
Photo by Gil Lemmon
Salas said his best moment at the Meet of Champions was seeing Gomez jump off one foot in the long jump, something he’d struggled with because of his disability. They spent a lot of time working on that one aspect.
“It was fun to see him get over that fear,” Salas said. “I could tell he was scared of jumping off one foot, because he felt that he was gonna fall or something was gonna happen. It was fun to see him get over that fear, and doing the best he could and doing amazing out there.”
Salas described the volunteers at the Meet of Champions as “awesome.”
“They treated us like any other athlete out there, so it was cool,” he said.
The process of ushering in Unified Sports got rolling in November 2015, when the CIF, Special Olympics Northern and Southern California and the California Department of Education (CDE) announced a partnership to establish an inclusive culture that promotes participation opportunities for student-athletes with disabilities.
Lemmon was generally pleased with the section’s historic first unified venture in track and field.
“Overall very well,” Lemmon said. “It was our first attempt to offer unified track and field, and while we (Special Olympics and myself) see areas that we may need to revise/improve, we believe that the efforts have paved the way for a program that will have much greater participation next year.“
Lemmon said the best parts were the evident support and developed relationships between the unified partners, and the support of the crowd.
Students with special needs don’t often get to experience school sports like everyone else on campus. Unified allows them to bond with and compete alongside classmates as equals.
“It’s an opportunity for students to be on a school team,” Nassersaeid said. “Mr. Lemmon spoke at the California Athletic Directors’ Association Conference: One of his messages that really stuck with me was that the section has an obligation to all of its students to provide athletic opportunities, and so there’s something to be said for being on the school team. There are some sibling-athlete and partner-pairs that have never had the chance to be on the same school team together, and now they’re a unified unit, running and jumping together, trying to get to Meet of Champions.”
Webb, a special education teacher at Logan for 32 years, also cherished the experience at Edwards Stadium.
“It was cool,” Webb said. “Oh yeah, a good time.”
Webb said his unified track and field athletes trained during class time and after school.
Nassersaeid isn’t sure who’s benefiting more from the unified program, the special education students or the general education students. But he knows both groups are getting something positive from it. Their families are too.
“It’s nice parents say things to me, but It’s my pleasure to put these things together,” he said. “I need to thank them because they were the ones who allowed their students to try this new thing that no one else had done, and taking time out of their Memorial Weekend to say, ‘Wait a second, we’ve got to go to Berkeley for a couple hours to run in this track meet.’”
Everything sort of crystallized for Nassersaeid when the unified teams reached the awards stand.
A busy man throughout the meet, he finally had a chance to take stock of the moment.
“Just seeing the joy on their faces being so excited, just their hard work and their dedication to what they’re trying to do, and they’re willingness to try something different and new, they were rewarded for that,” he said.
“I’m extremely grateful for that. The smiles and the high-fives and the parents in the stands, seeing their students be awarded at a big track meet like that.
“That was the surreal part for me that really had a chance to sink in.”