Shown above are Parker Merritt and Caden Fry in downtown Indianapolis
During the past three years, the NFHS has featured its “Special Olympics Unified Sports Experience“ at the National Student Leadership Summit (NSLS) in Indianapolis. It was held at Indianapolis (Indiana) Arsenal Technical High School in 2015 and 2016, and this year, it was at Plainfield (Indiana) High School.
The Unified Sports Experience brings together the NSLS ambassadors and students with intellectual disabilities from throughout Indiana in a variety of athletic activities.
However, making this year’s Unified Sports Experience unique was the fact that four individuals (two sets of an “Athlete” and a “Unified Sports Partner”) attended the conference as ambassadors. The individuals with intellectual disabilities are commonly referred to as “athletes” and the individuals without intellectual disabilities are referred to as “partners.” They become “paired” together in this endeavor.
From Evanston (Wyoming) High School were senior athlete Parker Merritt and freshman partner Caden Fry. Merritt has Down syndrome. EHS is a Unified Champion School.
According to Dan Lang, Special Olympics Wyoming Director of Field Services, who traveled with Merritt to the NSLS, there is a structured process involved with organizing the Unified Sports teams and identifying the Special Olympics athletes and partners.
Caden Fry (front center – wearing green shorts) and Parker Merritt (front right – wearing dark shorts) at the 2017 Unified Sports Experience
“Unified Sports teams are typically recruited at the local or school level,” Lang began. “Special Olympics athletes are identified by teachers and partners are recruited through a variety of opportunities, such as siblings, classmates, sports programs, physical education classes and even church. The program is looking for the right ‘fit’ – someone who displays good sportsmanship, is respectful and is willing to commit the time.”
Parker Merritt’s mother, Debbie, who traveled with her son to Indianapolis, was impressed with the atmosphere at the National Student Leadership Summit.
“Parker and Caden were able to obtain leadership tools they can share with their peers," Debbie Merritt said. "Not only was Parker able to gain leadership tools, he gained more confidence in his personal advocating skills.
“It was an honor for Parker to be chosen as an ambassador for Wyoming, and to be around some of the top high school athletes in the nation. Among those athletes, I noticed kindness, patience, understanding and friendship extended toward Parker. He fit right in, there was no ‘gap’ amongst the elite athletes, ‘no one-man team,’ no ‘I am better than you are because I think I have a better advantage in life.’ He taught others that it is OK to not be all the ‘same.’ He also gave them the freedom to relax and accept themselves as well as others.
“Parker is truly a gift to our family. A lot of people say we raised a good son, but my reply is always he raised us.”
Also attending the summit from just north of Indianapolis were athlete Blake Buckner, who will be a sophomore this fall at Noblesville (Indiana) High School, and partner Gavin Cooley, who will be a junior at NHS this fall.
At NHS, Buckner participates on the Unified Track Team, where he placed third in the state meet in both the 400-meter run and the 4x100-meter relay. He also was recognized at the NHS School Board Meeting and received certificates for his participation in both Unified Track and Field and in the NFHS National Student Leadership Summit.
“I think the Unified Sports Experience at Plainfield High School was a great experience and a lot of fun," Buckner said. "The event that I enjoyed the most would be the one where I had a mask over my eyes and Gavin would tap my shoulder – that way, I knew which way the ball was coming from so I could catch it.”
“I have tried my fair share of school activities, but going into this year, Unified is the only one I am continuing to participate in,” Cooley said. “I am a musician and hope to work on the school musical and in various concerts, and to record in our school's recording studio this year.
“My favorite activity is definitely Unified. It really pushes me out of my comfort zone and forces me to meet new people, which I sometimes struggle with."
Cooley added, "at Noblesville, there aren't partners or athletes. We are all just part of the team, and we all work hard to do our best for the team. Blake and I may be labeled separately in the eyes of society, but our similarities far outweigh our differences.”
Shown above is Blake Buckner at the spring 2017 Hamilton County Unified Track Meet after placing first in his 400-meter run heat
Coaching Buckner this past year was Noblesville High School Unified Track coach Andrew Skaggs.
“Blake has been wonderful to coach,” Skaggs said. “He comes to practice ready to work and improve. He is a wonderful teammate who celebrates the success of his peers the same as his own.
“In addition, Blake is a wonderful young man. I believe that this stems from his family first. They have raised Blake and his siblings to work hard, advocate, be respectful and to believe in themselves. Blake is confident in his abilities, but it was more of a quiet confidence. He does not want to let his teammates down. He is a good sport and embodies what it means to be an IHSAA athlete.
“I think Blake, as well as his teammates, constantly teach and remind me to focus on abilities. Every athlete and partner has abilities and strengths and we need to celebrate the abilities. Blake is a ‘typical teenage young man.’ I constantly learn this when around my team. Although everyone has differences, we learn that there are a lot of similarities between teammates as well.”
During the past two National Student Leadership Summits, Mitch Bonar has given presentations. Interestingly, he was a member of the first Unified Track team that Skaggs coached at Noblesville High School.
Shown above are Blake Buckner, Mitch Bonar and Gavin Cooley at the 2017 National Student Leadership Summit
“Mitch is ‘the man,’” Skaggs began. “Our first year of Unified I had a parent meeting to see what interest was out there. We had a total of two families show up. Mitch's family was one of the two. Because of the groundwork Mitch laid, we were at 77 (students) last year. Mitch was so much fun to coach. He has this ability to bring people together. He was able to bridge the gap between our partners and athletes in such an organic and seamless way. He simply cares. He cares about what it means to compete for your school as a varsity athlete.
“This year, Mitch joined the NHS track program as a volunteer coach, and that was a seamless transition. He has so much invested in Unified through his speaking and now being on the Special Olympics Board of Directors that he is able to pull from. Mitch just wants every athlete to succeed.”