Payson Special Olympics has kicked off the winter sports season prompting coach Ruby Lane to scour the town in search of unified partners for the snowshoeing team.
“Right now, we have only one unified partner and (to compete) we must have two,” Lane said.
Unified Sports, which involves mixing two Special Olympic athletes with two partners who do not qualify as SO athletes is relatively new.
But with the growing popularity of the program, Special Olympics athletes and their teammates without intellectual disabilities now practice and play together on Unified Sports teams.
SO officials explain the concept as “a moving and exciting initiative for higher ability athletes of all ages, from youth to adults. Mixed teams provide the public direct opportunities to experience firsthand the capabilities and courage of Special Olympics athletes.”
In the Peoria Unified School District, SO’s Unified Sports concept has been expanded to include physical education.
There, general-education students and classmates with intellectual disabilities at two area high schools play modified versions of basketball, soccer and flag football together.
Prior to the program, SO students had their own PE program which school officials agree is not an ideal situation because students can feel isolated and disconnected from the rest of the student body. The idea behind the innovative program is to bring down barriers.
Peoria partnered with Special Olympics Arizona to create and implement the Unified Sports Program.
Special Olympics Arizona used a $57,000 federal grant to hire a curriculum writer to develop the program with the district.
In July, the Payson SO program sent 31 athletes, 15 coaches and eight Unified Partners to the USA National Games in Lincoln, Neb. There, the local partners participated alongside SO athletes in flag football and soccer.
Last spring, Payson sent the Unified Sports bowling team of Anne Spencer, Todd Orr, Shelly Orr and Carol Nethan to Reno, Nev. for the SO national championships. There, teams captured gold, silver and fifth-place medals in various competitions.
Just two years ago, the unified team of John Sexton, David Frohme, George Karrys, R.D. Nielsen, Chad Torgenson and Bonn represented the Rim Country in the inaugural Swim, Bike and Run Special Olympics Triathlon in Tucson.
For Payson to continue to be well represented in the Unified Sports program, a volunteer from the community must step forward and agree to practice and compete with the snowshoe team. Only then can the team compete in the upcoming Arizona Winter Olympics.
“For some reason, people don’t want to snowshoe,” said Lane. “But actually it is a lot of fun.”
In addition to sending a snowshoe team to the Winter Olympics, which will be held Feb. 25-26 near Flagstaff, Payson will enter both speed skating and a girls figure skating team.
The teams practice locally mostly in dry conditions, but on occasion the speed and figure skaters will travel to the Ice Palace in the Valley for practice and the snowshoe athletes travel north to find snow.
Payson’s ice skating team, which includes Jenna Palandri, Jacquelyn Karrys and Becky Radimaker, has been highly successful despite having competed the past three years without a coach.
Swimmers, bocce team advances to state
The Payson SO team enters the winter season fresh off a banner campaign in swimming and bocce that culminated early this month at the state finals held in Surprise and Sun City.
The swimmers competed at the Surprise Aquatics Center and the bocce team on multipurpose fields in the retirement community.
“The swimmers started practicing early in June at Taylor Pool, then continued at the reservation pool when Taylor closed for the summer,” Lane said. “The (swim) team participated in area meets at Cottonwood and in Mesa.”
The bocce team practiced all summer and early fall at Rumsey Park and competed at an SO area meet in Camp Verde.
At the state finals in the Valley, team members were treated to the traditional myriad of activities.
“The team participated in opening ceremonies at the stadium in Surprise,” said Lane. “The ceremonies included the athletes parade, Torch Run by law enforcement offices, and a wonderful show of fireworks.”
The highlight, however, might have been the dance.
“It’s always the favorite part for the athletes,” Lane said.
Also on the SO agenda, the local bowling team wrapped up its season Dec. 6 at Rim Country Lanes.
Anyone interested in volunteering to coach SO teams or participate in the Unified Sports program should call Becky Derwort at (928) 474-9142.