The magic of Unified Sports

The magic of Unified Sports

In 28 Unified Champion Schools across CNY, partners and players promote inclusion, develop leadership skills, and build toward systemic change one game at a time.
Published: July 11, 2021

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Jack McHerron jumps for joy after sinking game-winning basket for his Liverpool Unified Basketball team.

Down by one with two-and-a-half seconds left in regulation, Cody Curkendall had a choice to make. Take the feel-good lay-up, or pass the ball to Jack McHerron, a teammate standing beside the hoop, arms open and ready, who had an equally strong chance to sink the game-winning basket.

Cody made the pass. 

And what Jack did next shocked everyone, especially Jack. 

“Jack shoots it up. The ball bounces. Out of time. And then it goes in the hoop,” Liverpool Unified Basketball head coach John Sheridan says. “It was awesome.”

Jack and Cody, members of the Liverpool Unified Basketball team, are two of the 68,000 individuals involved in the New York State branch of Unified Sports. 

“That’s a huge population of people,” says Jessica Dauvergne, director of Unified Sports New York. She also notes it is significant considering there wasn’t much recruitment of younger generations when the program began more than a decade ago.

Special Olympics started in 1968 and found its way into New York two years later, making it a relatively new organization, and one that struggled to expand beyond its original members. That is, until the creation of Unified Sports.

Founded in 2008, Unified Sports combines Unified athletes, individuals with intellectual disabilities, and Unified partners, individuals without intellectual disabilities, to form competitive teams at the high school level. In New York State, two Unified sports, basketball and bowling, are flourishing. “I want to say, about six years ago, it was just starting to come to Central New York,” Jaime Vollmer, East Syracuse Minoa Unified basketball and bowling coach, says. “And it really has taken off since then.” 

In the beginning, Vollmer says there were only three other schools. Now, the state boasts around 230 Unified Champion Schools, and CNY is home to about 28 of those schools. The mission of these programs is to promote social inclusion through three components with the goal of creating systems-wide change: inclusive sports, combined with youth leadership and whole school engagement, serve as the pillars of the Unified Sports program.  

Dauvergne says the youth leadership aspect and the inclusive sports portion work together well because it pairs “students with and without intellectual or mental disabilities working on leadership groups together on awareness campaigns and advocacy efforts,” The third component, whole school engagement, leverages that work and expands it out to the entire community. “That’s where we really target the whole climate and try and make changes for the better of this next generation coming up to be more inclusive, and really raising awareness of Special Olympics,” Dauvergne says.

However, the New York State section would not have been possible without an initial partnership between Special Olympics and the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. Todd Nelson, NYSPHSAA assistant director, helped jump start the initiative to bring Unified Sports to the state after being inspired by high-school athletics representatives from Connecticut, a state that has participated in the program for more than 25 years. 

“I just felt like that was something that could benefit student-athletes here in New York,” Nelson says. “Schools have identified that there’s a need and some of their students haven’t had that opportunity to participate in their interscholastic program, either through talent, or disabilities, or other factors that have precluded them from participating and putting on that school uniform. And this program gives them that opportunity to do that.”

Bigger than you

At the core of Unified Sports is the sport itself, but the power of the program is visible throughout CNY because of the people that make it possible, and what Sheridan calls “Unified basketball magic” is a great example of that.

David Daws and Anthony Ho, both former Unified partners on Liverpool’s Unified basketball team and the masterminds behind Jack’s game-winning shot, tasted that magic and wanted more. Back in 2017, sitting in their 7 a.m. study hall as seniors in high school, Sheridan sensed their athleticism from talks about the basketball shoes he wore on his feet every day. Based on those conversations, he knew they could be a part of something bigger. So, he asked Daws and Ho if they’d be interested in joining the Unified Basketball team at Liverpool High School. Although neither of them were on the varsity basketball team, the answer was pretty clear.

Ho had experience working with people with disabilities. One of his family members has cerebral palsy, but felt he could learn even more through this opportunity. Daws, however, initially believed he was there to show off his skills. “I wanted to perform,” he says. “But as the season continued, it was more about other people, not just me. It was more about the kids with intellectual disabilities, and it was more about having them involved and giving them a good, competitive season.”

Four years passed, both went off to college, first to St. John Fisher and Onondaga Community College, then both to SUNY Buffalo as they felt the school was a better fit. But, throughout all of the changes, they kept their ties to Sheridan and the Liverpool Unified Basketball team, occasionally playing a game of pick-up basketball together when they were home from college.

So, when they both needed internships to complete their college degrees, the first person they reached out to was Sheridan. After the coach ecstatically offered them assistant coaching positions, the two decided to pass on what they learned during their time in the program to future generations. “Not only did they love it, but they came back to kind of foster it here,” Sheridan says. “It warms my heart that they caught the bug, and they see how great it is.”

One of the many lessons the trio seeks to instill in the current players is teamwork. As one of the Unified partners that had to learn that lesson, Daws realized he had to take on the responsibility of ensuring the Unified partners he helped to coach understood that too. 

To do that, he made that connection with Liverpool Unified Basketball partner, Nasir Coleman. “I’ll be honest, my first day, I see him, he’s clearly a hooper,” Daws recalled. “We had issues with kids when we were playing that wanted to dunk on everybody. I totally thought we were gonna have a problem like that with this guy.”

But just as soon as the assumption was made, Coleman proved him wrong. “First day, he knew what he was playing for,” Daws says. And what those affiliated with the program play for is something bigger than oneself. “It’s not about you,” Coleman says. “You’re put in the spot of being a leader in helping develop, as not only players, but people.”

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The Liverpool Unified Basketball team huddles up during a game.

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The Oswego Unified Bowling team poses for a picture at the bowling alley.

Based on what she’s seen from the sidelines, Oswego High School Unified Bowling coach Kristina Taylor agrees. “I have brought some of my traditional varsity athletes over to our Unified team,” Taylor says. “And it’s been so awesome to see them go from when they’re on their varsity team, everything is all about me. And when they move over to the Unified side of things, there’s a whole new level of ‘I want somebody else to do good, too’.”

A Buffalo, N.Y. native, Taylor found her passion for Special Olympics on her way to becoming an adapted physical education teacher, or someone who teaches physical education to students with disabilities, in Orlando, Florida. There, she says, she was a Unified partner. She hosted a special summer camp and even coached the USA Special Olympics games twice on opposite sides of the country.

After she made the move to Oswego with the rest of her family a few years ago, she looked to continue her efforts in the Special Olympics community. Taylor felt that helping create a Unified Sports program in the county was naturally the next step. “Nobody else really stepped forward or had an idea, it was kind of new to most of the schools in the area,” Taylor says. “I think I really just helped build a foundation.”

What’s next?

Unified Sports’ motto, “Play Unified. Live Unified” extends beyond the players’ time in the program. Taylor saw this first-hand when, she says, two former members of her team showed up to cheer on current members. “They were not only there to cheer on their athletes, but the two of them had connected, and were there to go bowling and to hang out after we were done,” Taylor says. “So, it was an athlete and a partner that had made a connection through bowling, and they now have a connection in their daily life, which I just thought was awesome.”

That connection, Taylor says, helps make a difference in the surrounding community. “Even if it just made a change in one person, that one person would go out and advocate, and then maybe they would affect somebody that would go out and advocate,” Taylor says. “It’s definitely a chain reaction. So, as we graduate these partners, and as we graduate these athletes, they are entering the community with a new look on living Unified.”

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Two Oswego Unified Bowling teammates exemplify the importance of inclusivity.

And that’s exactly what Dauvergne says she has in mind for the future of Unified Sports – the continuation and expansion of the program across all age groups as well as an exponential increase in the number of sports they are able to offer. Dauvergne also points out Vollmer, a Syracuse University alum, who has already started to make headway in that goal as she has brought her Unified Sports program at East Syracuse Minoa into a new realm – a virtual one – through esports.

“I got four of my athletes involved in the esports program,” Vollmer says. “They play Rocket League, and they have all different platforms in which they can play.”

The magic of Unified Sports has even spread into the collegiate level thanks to an ongoing creation of a Special Olympics College Club at Syracuse University that combines Special Olympics with Syracuse’s Inclusive U program. Sarah Kadmon, a rising sophomore at SU and future president of the club, explains the importance of bringing a Unified Sports program to the university and the plans she has for the club.

As Jack McHerron’s gaming-winning shot proved, the program leverages sports as a tool to expand opportunity for all.  “Give the kids an opportunity to be able to shine, don’t limit them,” says Eric Smith, North Syracuse Unified Basketball coach. “They’re stronger than we could ever be because they overcome anything that you put in front of them.”