Senior Ruth Fox was drained. After cheering at the football game the night before, she wasn’t sprinting back and forth across the court like she usually does. She wasn’t launching the basketball towards the net as she would at any other Special Olympics tournament.
But halfway through the championship game at Shawnee Mission West on Nov. 5, Ruth’s spark returned. She squeezed junior Libby Frye into a tight hug. Then, she and Frye were hand-in-hand.
“Come on, Ruth! We’ve got to go play!”
The pair, athlete and unified partner, ran back and forth across the court with hands locked as they continued to battle against Blue Valley North. The Shawnee Mission East team took second place that tournament – an accomplishment sophomore Mary Brazeal called her favorite moment of year.
Senior project co-chair Mick Wiggins has seen moments like these since the beginning of the program last year – hands intertwined, constant high-fives, bright smiles.
“I know [the Special Olympic athletes] so well know that I can tell when [sophomore] Jack Melvin is upset even if he’s trying to hide it,” Mick said. “It’s just like with any of your other friends. You develop that bond, that relationship, and a disability is not going to stand in the way of that friendship.”
At the same time special education athletes are learning new skills such as dribbling a basketball or kicking a soccer ball, regular education volunteers are receiving just as positive a learning experience, according to Mick.
Volunteers say they benefit from the friendships formed even more so than the special education students. These friendships have revealed both the similarities between the athletes and unified partners and the unique personalities of the athletes.
Senior project co-chair Kendall Dunbar realized how similar she and her Special Olympics teammates were when Ruth, Mary and junior Hannah McConville planned to walk to TCBY together one day after school before heading to the football game that night. It was the exact same thing Dunbar would do with any of her other friends, she said.
“Sometimes it felt that [the athletes and I] were different in age,” Kendall said. “I didn’t know that they do the exact same things as [other high schoolers do]. They just do it a little differently. They really are the same as [everyone else is].”
At first, she didn’t understand her Special Olympics friends the way she does now. She didn’t know that Jack’s favorite pre-tournament music is Bruno Mars, or that she can always go to junior Jackson Schultz about the latest KU basketball update – he knows almost every current statistic of his favorite team.
At the start of the program, Kendall and Mick were unsure how to act: it was their first experience interacting with special education students one-on-one. Over time, it became easier, as they learned more and more about their teammates’ personalities.
There are still some barriers to understanding each other – sometimes Ruth barks instead of talking, and Hannah doesn’t talk much at all. But they know now that Jack needs a good old-fashioned pep talk to flip his mood, and Mary is a hard worker who’ll shoot hoops with her dad every day after school to prepare for the next game.
Whether in the middle of a stop-and-go scrimmage or a passing drill during their hour-long seminar practice, the athletes enjoy themselves. Having fun sometimes steers them off track during practice, like when Jack and Jackson grab basketballs instead of practicing bocce ball.
“It’s exciting when you get to play instead of just staring at [sports on] the TV,” Jackson said.
More than a few funny moments have been shared, from seeing Hannah chase after her unified partner who “had her nose,” to watching Jackson roll around on the floor at their last tournament in order to the get the and-one.
But when game time arrives, each player does their part. For Jackson, that means leading the team in scoring by making layups. For Mary, it’s passing the ball to her teammates so they can shoot.
“I’ve seen sides of the kids that I’ve never seen before when they’re out there,” Mick said. “They really do get competitive. Playing sports really brings out the best in them and their greatest qualities.”
Though some athletes thrive on the competition, the focus is not on the scores according to Tom Schultz, Jackson’s dad. Rather, the program emphasizes the invaluable skills that the kids like Jackson are learning. Jackson practices responsibility, ensuring he’s on-time to practice with his jersey and shoes ready, and leadership, by passing the ball to someone else on the team if he’s just scored himself.
“The project leaders know that some kids are there to compete and others are there for a social time,” Tom said. “They do a great job balancing that.”
Whether they’re there for the competition or social opportunity, each athlete has formed a bond with their unified partners. Mick can’t count the number of times he’s heard “When’s our next tournament?” Kendall expects hugs from Jack whenever she sees him in the hallway and from Ruth outside the coffee shop in the morning.
“When we see the smiles on the kids’ faces it makes us happy too,” Mick said. “We’re giving them something they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do and that gives us a sense of accomplishment and happiness.”