A small but inspired community met for the first time at Green Lane Fields on Sunday, Sept. 16, as students and Special Olympics athletes teamed up to play soccer in a new club created by Special Olympics New Jersey called Unified League.
Weekly soccer games that partner College students with athletes with disabilities are the current focus of Special Olympics New Jersey and aim to provide an enriching experience for all parties involved.
“Unified sports are so important because it gives Special Olympics athletes a chance to interact with typical peers, and (my son) is inspired by that,” said Liz Donahue, mother of Special Olympics athlete and goal-scoring machine, Will. “For TCNJ to say, ‘OK, we want to really establish an organized program,’ is phenomenal. For kids like Will, any opportunity for organized sports is fantastic.”
During Sunday’s two-hour event, three athletes and five students stretched, ran basic drills and played a friendly four-on-four game of soccer.
The athletes were immersed and competitive — Will showed off his ruthless shot early and often, Michael Capone performed his best Lionel Messi impression and Becky Scheick played defense that would make Vincent Kompany envious. The day reinforced the College’s commitment to athletes with disabilities a few months after hosting the 2012 Special Olympics New Jersey Summer Games.
“We hope this league will enhance the already strong relationship between the College and Special Olympics N.J.,” said Ed Dean, assistant intramural and sports club coordinator for the College. “It is a new and exciting experience for everyone involved and we are happy to be a part of.”
The now weekly 1 p.m. event represents an enjoyable, social and ultimately beneficial experience that everyone involved can look forward to, allowing athletes with disabilities to exercise in a community with faces they recognize.
“Staying in shape is a life-long thing for these guys. (Will) has no way of working out but he loves the game of soccer. He loves the competition, and to be here at TCNJ with college students,” Donahue said. “We wish there were more opportunities.”
Not only do athletes enthusiastically interact with students, but they can develop long-lasting relationships with each other through athletic competitions.
“Becky and Will have been doing this for a long time, and the Special Olympics athletes get to know each other,” Donahue said. “Becky is five years older than Will, but they’ve been friends because they’ve played on teams together, and it’s great.”
And while attendance among athletes with disabilities was small for Sunday’s event, numbers are expected to increase after the word about the new league starts to circulate.
“We just have to get the word out — communication is the hardest thing. They all go to different schools, we all live in different towns. There’s not a central communication,” Donahue said.
While athletes with disabilities benefit from the program, the Unified League can also be a rewarding experience for student volunteers.
“Individuals volunteering will gain experience and leadership along with developing team skills with athletes who are not as physically skilled as students without a disability,” Dean said.
Donahue also pointed out how beneficial the support of volunteers will be for the league.
“It’s just so great that (the College’s) opening up its fields, that the students will get up on a Sunday and come and play soccer,” Donahue said.
The College’s commitment to athletes with disabilities will also be on display as it phases in unified volleyball and other sports throughout the year and the same advantages — as well as excitement — will be there for athletes and students alike.
“We’re thrilled,” Donahue said. “(Unified League) really benefits everyone — it’s a win-win-win.”