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Rec Sports empowers disabled athletes through unified sports leagues

Ohio State will expand its offerings of unified recreational sports leagues this year. Credit: Keaton Maisano | For The Lantern

Sometimes a victory in sports can be accomplished without being ahead on the scoreboard.

The Ohio State Department of Recreational Sports has followed the lead of the Special Olympics to empower disabled athletes by integrating unified sports leagues on campus to increase community-building initiatives.

The presence of unified sports, an opportunity to bring those with and without intellectual disabilities under the umbrella of sport, is a new addition brought about by Katie Lee, a former graduate student at Ohio State and current director of coaches education and university programs for Special Olympics of Ohio.

The university has been active with Special Olympics in the past, as it has hosted the state games since 1972.

Marci Shumaker, senior director for administration and programs, said unified leagues is a large initiative in Special Olympics nationally that has been really well received at Ohio State.

“I think with the feedback from the college, the Ohio State students who participated in that program and the joy that it brought to the athletes and their families,” Shumaker said. “It was a no-brainer that we would continue to try and do it.”

Jessica Gilbert, a graduate administrative assistant in competitive sports, said that Ohio State introduced the concept of unified sports with a soccer league, and the response drove expansion to basketball and football.

Gilbert said she was surprised by the community’s enthusiasm for the opportunity to participate and make the program a success.

“We didn’t realize how much people wanted that opportunity, so when that opportunity was given, we were like, ‘Oh, all these people love to do this,’” Gilbert said.

An inaugural unified flag football tournament will take place at Ohio State on Oct. 28 and will include drills, team formations and tournament play. Gilbert added the winner will get to participate in the Toledo Unity Bowl, which takes unified teams from the region.

Shumaker said beyond the competitive aspect, the arena of sports offers a common ground for people from all walks of life and the idea of diversity fits with the goals of the program.

“I think [the goal] is to build community,” Shumaker said. “That sense of community could be really enhancing to everyone who participates in these types of programs.”

Noting an increase in the participants from last year, Gilbert said that this sense of community is growing, now including students in addition to Special Olympians.

Shumaker said the goal of the department is to continue increasing the number of athletes and students they impact by adding more unified sports at Ohio State.

“We just did our new strategic plan, which is a five-year plan that started this year,” Shumaker said. “One of rec sports’ strategic initiatives that we’re pursuing is to enhance the participation in unified sports for Ohio State.”

Gilbert encourages all to give unified sports a try.

“You are going to love it,” she said. “It’s a great environment, and you just get to play sports and build community around people that you’re most likely not normally around all the time.”

The program incorporates service and community within the activity of playing a sport, and what comes out of this experience can be truly special, Shumaker said.

“I think it’s the epitome of sport bringing people together,” Shumaker said. “It can really be a true unifying, common goal to do something really great together around sport.”

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