On Monday, November 13th, 2023, the spirit of unity and competition took center stage at Duke University's Williams Field as three prominent North Carolina universities – Duke, UNC, and NC State – competed against each other in Special Olympic Unified Rivalry games. As the teams battled on the field, the true essence of Special Olympics Unified Sports shone brightly, uniting individuals with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team, and showcasing the power of inclusion in sports.
The Winners’ Circle:
The evening witnessed fierce competition and unwavering sportsmanship as the teams fought for glory. In a tightly contested battle, NC State clinched gold, UNC secured silver, and Duke proudly earned bronze. Yet, beyond the medals, every participant emerged a winner, embodying the triumph of inclusivity and collaboration. Ellie Baumann, coach for Duke’s Unified flag football team, said:
“This was my first season working with Duke’s unified program and I have been blown away by the friendship, kindness, and passion for living unified. I love unified sports because of the opportunity it gives for those participating to work towards a more unified generation, be a leader both on and off the field, and get active. Every person involved is compassionate, supportive, and always so excited to be there. Monday night’s rivalry games were a testimony to the joy and camaraderie that unified sports bring to a community. The competitive energy could be felt on and off the field, and it is always the highlight of my week to see everyone cheering one another on, picking each other up when we’re down, and prioritizing good sportsmanship.”
The Heartwarming Spectacle:
The stands at Jack Katz Stadium roared with support as spectators, prepared with signs, cheered on the players. The energy and passion radiating from the stands mirrored the intensity on the field, creating an unforgettable evening of unity and celebration.
Testimonials from the Heart:
Participants shared touching moments from the event. Shawn Waitt, an athlete from UNC’s team, said: “It was an amazing night; I thought everyone had a great time. I just love how everyone came together and came out to support us. It really shows you how special Special Olympics is and the impact it has; it’s really powerful stuff and it makes me emotional every time (in a good way). I just love being a part of something this big… I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Grant Stiff, an athlete from Duke’s team, shared his appreciation for the entire season:
“Flag football was a lot of fun this year. I enjoyed myself from the kickoff celebration to the championship game. I want to say a big thanks to all the people who participated and the Duke students who made it great!”
Special Olympic Unified Schools – Changing Lives Through Sports:
The Unified Rivalry games echoed the broader impact of Special Olympics, which is the world's largest sports organization for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Unified Sports exemplifies the transformative power of inclusivity, fostering joy and breaking stereotypes. Aline Malek, co-president of the Special Olympics College Club at Duke, shared her experience:
“I am very thankful to be a part of the Duke Special Olympics family and to have formed friendships with the athletes and my fellow peers since my freshman year at Duke. Every time we meet I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude — it is a great reminder that we always have something to learn from diversity of thought, and I feel very grateful to be part of a community that welcomes and embodies this sense of diversity, inclusion, and community.”
The Special Olympics Unified Rivalry game was a celebration of diversity, inclusion, and shared humanity. The triumphant spirit of the athletes, the cheers from the crowd, and the bonds formed on the field all contribute to a legacy of empowerment and inspiration. As we reflect on this extraordinary night, let's carry forward the lessons learned and continue championing unity, acceptance, and the belief that sports can change lives.
Image Credit: Duke Recreation & Physical Education
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