Competing Together: Unified Sports provides opportunities to Special Olympics athletes, CMU students

A March-madness feel to it.

That's how Saline senior Reed Holden described Unified Sports at Central Michigan — which pairs Special Olympics athletes with CMU students for intramural competition.

For many Special Olympic athletes, they look at the opportunity as more than just recreational time.

“For basketball, it’s like March Madness, it’s like the NBA Finals," Holden said. "To them it is a big deal, so for you, it is a big deal because you want them to enjoy it as much as possible."

Unified Sports is a collaboration between Special Olympics Michigan and students at Central Michigan. The volunteer coaches and student participants are CMU students. They play one game a week with a championship game at the end of the season.

There is no practice and prior experience in playing a sport is not necessary.

“There is typically an assessment day where we can assess each individual and see what level they are at, and from there make teams,” said Katie Smith, an intern with SOMI in charge of Unified Sports.

After the athletes are evaluated and the teams are made, the season begins. The season is competitive, as the athletes are not only there to have fun, but to win as well.

Unified Sports offers basketball, volleyball, kickball, flag football and soccer, all during the school year. Information can be found on CMU's IMLeagues website with all other intramural sports information.

Unlike other intramural sports, participants do not have to pay to play in Unified Sports.

“We play unified, we live unified, and that is kind of what we want to address here,” Smith said. “We want to promote it on our campus because we don’t want to have barriers or separation. We are all one.”

Unified Sports at CMU started three years ago with basketball, soccer and volleyball. Central Michigan has played a large role in the creation of Unified Sports as well as promoting it to other schools, Smith said.

“Unified (Sports) is one of the most beneficial things (on campus) right now," she said. "It is a lot of collaborating with CMU students and Special Olympics Athletes. It is really important because the athletes do look up to the CMU students."

Many of the student volunteers can be seen playing sports with the athletes before the games. They give each other high-fives and encourage each other during the games.

“I love how happy everyone is to be here," said Spring Hill sophomore Audrie Dalman. "Everyone is so inclusive. It is like a little family."

Dalman has been a coach for Unified football and basketball and an athlete for soccer and volleyball.

Getting involved in multiple sports allows for connections between students and Special Olympics athletes to carry over.

“There are definitely a handful of athletes that have been on my teams multiple times and there is that familiarity,” Holden said. “They know you by first name and you know them by first name. We hold each other accountable because we know our athletic ability.”