In Olivia's Words:
Special Olympic Unified Sports is the greatest thing I've ever had a chance to be a part of. I started volunteering at Camp Shriver (an inclusive sports-based Special Olympics day camp) in Orlando, Florida when I was in the 8th grade (I am now a junior in college). I was so nervous at the start because I wasn't sure what to expect. But after just a few days, I was in love with camp. That same summer, Coach Silvia Haas started a Special Olympics Unified Sports soccer team and invited me to join and of course I did. I had no idea that this team would change my life.
Working with the athletes and seeing them transform into great athletes over the years has been so rewarding. When we first started, my team barely understood the game of soccer. We would work really hard to teach them all the basic concepts like getting in front of a player, using their head to move the ball, spreading the field and trying to get open while on offense. These concepts were actually a lot harder to teach than you would think, but we finally found ways to say it that clicked for them.
Many years later, as we are about to go on our second trip to the Special Olympics USA Games, my teammates truly understand the game of soccer. Our practices now consist of conditioning sessions and a lot of running, organized drills, and working on ball control. As we get closer to the USA Games, it is becoming more and more difficult to tell who is the Unified Partner and who is the Special Olympics athlete. In the end I think that is the ultimate goal of Unified Sports: to show how there really is no difference between someone with a disability and someone without. Coach Silvia has always emphasized that "we need to focus on the ability, not the disability" since day one of training, all those years ago. That is what has gotten us where we are today: not setting any limits as to what people with different abilities can achieve and always pushing them to outdo themselves.
Not only have we all grown as soccer players, but we have grown as people too. By spending so much time together, we've taught each other a lot. I think we've all learned to have patience, because not every skill is easily taught, and every skill isn't easily learned. We all get a little frustrated, and in those moments it is important to be patient and to not give up on what we're trying to accomplish. We've learned to work as a team. We all have the same goal, which is to win a gold medal at the USA Games, and the only way to win is to give 100 percent effort 100 percent of the time and to always be supportive of each other on and off the field. We have developed such a bond throughout the years, that I definitely consider my teammates to be my friends. We've grown together as players and people. I remember when some of them would have difficulty making eye contact, or initiating conversation, or were a little uncomfortable in social situations. After hanging out so much and treating each other no differently than anyone else, I know the athletes feel a lot more comfortable being social. They have become more talkative; they give handshakes or hugs as greetings, and try to look you in the eye when you're having a conversation. They are continuously growing and there are no limitations on what they will be able to accomplish in the future.
I think the main lesson learned from Special Olympics Unified Sports is that we are all people who just want to be accepted, and to have fun with our friends doing something we love. My teammates will be my friends for life, and I couldn't be more blessed to have shared this experience with this amazing group of people.
In Josue's Words:
I have been playing soccer for eight years. The first two years I played on a traditional Special Olympics team because my mom heard there was an opening on a Special Olympics team, and she wanted to be sure I stayed healthy by getting physical activity. In 2008, I was offered the opportunity to play on the Special Olympics Unified Soccer Team. At first I was nervous and intimidated to play alongside the Unified partners, but not anymore. They treat me as an equal player and give strategic advice. They help me see how I can improve and play better. For example, sprinting is not my most favorite part of practice, but I've improved over the years thanks to the help of the Unified partners and their help in improving my stamina, speed and overall knowledge of the game. For the past year I have been the goalie, and I want to keep improving on that position in the years to come.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Special Olympics in conjunction with the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games, hosted in New Jersey from June 14 to 21. Visit here to learn more about the Special Olympics. Read all posts in the series here.