By Sophie Chinn, Staff Writer
// The lunch bell rings as students file into the big gym. The stands are quickly packed, and the voices echo around the walls. The Unified athletes take the floor, the crowd cheers, and the game begins.
Unified Sports, a program started in 2016, connects the special education classes with the rest of the school in fun, friendly sports games and events throughout the year.
Holly Thompson, the special education teacher, took on the job of Unified Sports coordinator in 2018, two years after the program began at Acalanes.
The program encompasses three sports seasons, starting with soccer in the fall, leading to basketball in the winter, and finishing with track and field in the spring.
Student volunteers sign up for various reasons, helping run the program.
“I signed up because I’ve done similar activities volunteering for coaching athletes like in Unified sports outside of school, so I knew that I would have a good experience doing it within the school community,” senior Theo Stoll said.
Students can sign up to participate and coach any of the three sports, including soccer, basketball, and track and field, even if they do not play the sports for Acalanes.
“I discovered the program when Mrs. Thompson came up to me after a volleyball game and invited me to help her in the basketball and track and field seasons…This year I’m doing soccer, basketball, and track, so all three seasons,” senior Apple Walton said.
Student volunteers are vital to the program as they act as partners to the athletes. The partnerships create bonds and memories across the school campus and introduce the special education students to the larger student body.
“I think the partners get even more out of the program than the athletes do. I think the partners don’t really know exactly what they are getting into, but when they see and spend time with these individuals and make these bonds and good relationships, it is just amazing,” Thompson said.
Track and field was the first sport launched in Unified Sports at Acalanes. The sport offers athletes and their partners the ability to compete in various track and field events, such as the 4×100-meter relay, 100-meter dash, and long jump. Currently, track and field athletes have the opportunity to compete at the state level.
“My favorite memory was when my partner Olivia and I went to the North Coast Section for long jump in track and field, and we got third overall. We killed it,” Walton said.
The Unified basketball and soccer teams play games on Mondays and Wednesdays at lunch throughout the year. Athletes practice after school twice a week during the six week season.
“I think basketball is their favorite sport because it is definitely a sport they would not get another chance to play if it weren’t for this program. Basketball has the biggest turnout and fan support for home games as well, with a big crowd to cheer them on,” Thompson said.
Acalanes Unified Sports competed on a larger stage when the Golden Gate Warriors invited the Unified basketball team to play during halftime at Oracle Arena in March of 2018.
“When you see a student who is normally so shy and non-verbal, to get on the court was just amazing,” Thompson said.
Unified Sports is beneficial to the Unified athletes as they get a chance to participate on campus like the general education students while still having fun with their classmates.
“I can say from first-hand experience that the athletes really enjoy being on the basketball court, improving their skills, and spending time with their classmates. Every time we played, there were a ton of smiles and a lot of progress with their basketball skills,” Stoll said.
Unified Sports plays an important role by including these students on campus, however, more inclusive programs can provide more support for these students.
“I think it’s just getting participation. I think that the partners, which are the general ed students, come out and support the program, and they do a very good job doing that. I think it’s just getting more and more of the special ed students to become a part of the program,” Unified Track and Field coach John Crain said.
Participation, connections, and community are the building blocks for Unified Sports as the program is extremely rewarding to both the student volunteers and the athletes.
“The Unified athletes are some of the toughest and strongest athletes I have ever worked with,” Acalanes graduate and Unified Sports volunteer Ian Archer said. “Every day I would see the kids struggle to communicate, and some struggle to walk. Yet during their activity time their smiles ran ear to ear. Their smiles made me smile and allowed me to look at the world from a more holistic perspective.”
Check out the photos below.
Photos by Holly Thompson, Courtesy Photos