Unified Sports in NWI help students meet friends, achieve goals, and reach their dreams

Curtis Hankins
By: Curtis Hankins Last Updated: May 27, 2022

“Team sports bring people together” – that is the simple idea Special Olympics cites as one of the main motives for their Unified Sports initiative, which joins people with and without intellectual disabilities together on the same team.

The Indiana High School Athletic Association recognizes two categories of Unified Sports – Flag Football in the fall, and Track & Field in the spring. In both of these sports, teams participate in a full season of games and meets, culminating in a state tournament. The competitors get to bond through training, competition, and build a camaraderie that is often unavailable to students with disabilities who rarely play on their school teams.

“It’s about the culture, becoming a part of Valpo Unified,” said David Prokop, head coach of Valparaiso High’s Unified team. “That means meeting people outside of your comfort zone, helping out others, connecting with the community, and showing off everyone’s abilities.”

This weekend, Valpo Unified is headed to Kokomo for the IHSAA Track & Field Regional, which is the next step in defending their back-to-back State Championship titles.

“We let everyone know that it’s really competitive,” Prokop said. “There’s a lot more to this than winning, but winning is definitely fun!”

Prokop said that he coaches his team with two primary goals in mind - ones that are more about character than scoring the most points on the track.

“The first, this is a chance for our special education students to experience a varsity letter sport that they would never have originally gotten to,” said Prokop. “They get to experience what it means to represent their school. They earn varsity letters, letterman jackets, all of that. Second, our gen ed kids step out of their comfort zone and interact with kids that they might not have usually been around help them reach their dreams.”

Unified Sports are still growing. Not every school in the Region has put together a program yet, and the level of formal organization varies across the country, but year-by-year the initiative continues to grow. Special Olympics states that more than 4500 elementary, middle, and high schools around the US are participating, with individual programs growing all the time – such as Hobart Unified.

“Here at Hobart we have great friendships and fun,” said Jackie Keefe, Head Coach of Hobart Unified Track & Field. “They just enjoy being out there, they laugh a lot, they dance, it’s a team-building thing for us.”

Keefe’s team practices twice a week, with the students getting a chance to try out all the different competitions like relays, long jump, and shot put.

“We’ll ask them what they’re comfortable with, and they’ll tell us things like ‘my goal is to run a 400 [meter relay],’” she said. “They get a chance to compete, and meet their own personal goals.”

One of Hobart’s new team members this year was sophomore Braden Paulson. He was participating in a program called Voice and Choice, which allows students to create their own opportunities for personal growth and learning. He decided to try peer mentoring thanks to the program, initially seeing it as a one-day project.

“Then I just kept coming back,” Paulson said. “Everyone here is just so nice, I like being around them. It’s just fun.”

Eventually, he was asked about joining the Unified team and he jumped at the opportunity.

“Some of these special needs students don’t get the chance to participate in team sports like this,” he said. “It’s really nice for them to be able to participate and be a part of a team. We don’t take it too serious, we just want to get out there and have fun.”To learn more about Unified Sports here in Indiana, visit soindiana.org.


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