Payson High Special Olympic students might soon have the opportunity to compete on the high school level in such sports as basketball, track and field, golf, cheerleading and flag football.
The Unified Sports Program, which is the first such partnership in the country, has its roots in Valley area schools, but plans are in the works to expand it to Payson and around small-town Arizona.
“I am traveling next week to visit (rural) schools and explain the program,” said Special Olympics Arizona representative Scott Brown.
In the Valley, 91 high schools have agreed to participate in the program that is being co-sponsored by the Arizona Interscholastic Association, the governing body for prep sports in the state.
Of those Valley schools that have agreed to participate, a huge majority, 67, will have track and field teams.
In golf, 19 will participate and 16 have committed to compete in basketball.
Cheerleading apparently has been a hard sell, with just three schools agreeing.
The introduction of the inaugural program took place Nov. 28 at Mountain Pointe High School in Tempe where SO and AIA officials held a news conference.
SO representatives say the inception of the program will allow students with intellectual disabilities the chance to compete at the high school level.
Ronny Jones, one of the Special Olympians who has competed in Unified Sports, says it gave him the chance to make his high school life a huge success.
The program is being funded by a grant from Special Olympics International, but will function with resources from the AIA, volunteer student athletes and the cooperation of the high schools.
Partners in the community
While Unified Partners on the high school level breaks new ground, Payson Special Olympics has sponsored a similar program with community volunteers for about three years.
Unified Sports, which involves mixing two Special Olympic athletes with two partners who do not qualify as SO athletes has proven to be popular in the Rim Country. In 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.”
A year ago, 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.
In 2009, 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 three years ago, the Unified team of John Sexton, David Frohme, George Karrys, R.D. Nielsen, Chad Torgenson and Ken Bonn represented the Rim Country in the inaugural Swim, Bike and Run Special Olympics Triathlon in Tucson.
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 within the district.
Anyone interested in volunteering to participate in the community’s Unified Sports program should call Becky Derwort at (928) 474-9142.