East Syracuse NY – In a quiet high school gymnasium, a month after the varsity team’s season ended, coach Jamie Vollmer asks the 13 athletes before her what they love most about their lives. Some say video games, but almost all say with certainty: playing basketball.
These athletes are part of the Unified Sports program offered by the state high school athletic association and Special Olympics New York. It includes 11 teams from the Syracuse area, as well as teams from Oswego County and Utica.
The players, who have an intellectual disability, have the opportunity to train and compete like other high school students. They are paired with other athletes – some with, some without a disability. The idea is to break stereotypes and build relationships.
For these children, this is the opportunity of a lifetime.
Mira Bozova and Edin Osmanovic are two of the team’s veterans. Edin – a long-range shooter – will point to the crowd in the stands, swollen after a long three.
Bozova, a senior and a force in midfield, will drive to the hoop from the foul line for her shot. If she misses, someone’s always there to grab a rebound, to give her another try. Even an opponent.
The games are no different from a regular season basketball game. Children wear numbered uniforms, player introductions take place over a loudspeaker by staff member Rocco Carbone, and cheers from families and students can be heard in the stands.
Founded in 2008 and funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, Special Olympics is designed to build inclusion and tolerance in schools.
At ESM, the varsity baseball team went to every home game to show their support.
The highlight of the season was Senior Night. Seven senior Unified players and their parents were honored for their hard work. The players took to the pitch with a single rose stem to give to their parents, thanking them for their support.
An emotional Abigail DeFeo broke down in tears and hugged her parents, followed by a quick selfie.
Coach Vollmer said, “One of my biggest inspirations was watching the relationships that formed over the season and continued through the school year.”
“ESM held their junior prom last weekend and a tear came to my eyes when I saw a few of my unified basketball partners leading their teammate onto the dance floor. started dancing together and the students were included on the dance floor with over 150 of their classmates,” she added.
Unified Sports may be less about winning and more about the journey, but these kids value winning as much as anyone else.
The Spartans ended their final game of the season with a thrilling one-point win over Liverpool, finishing with a perfect 6-0 record.