Posted by: sonewjersey | February 23, 2012

Rowan Unified

by Gary Baker, Assistant Director of Sport Clubs & Youth Programs, at Rowan University
(reposted with permission from

Sometimes, you just know when something amazing is going to happen in your life. I got one of those feelings late last fall when I received a phone call from the staff at Special Olympics New Jersey. On the heels of a fun ‘Miles for Medals’ 5k we hosted as a fundraiser for our local area of Special O, they contacted me about what they were describing as a unique opportunity called ‘Unified Sports’. I had previously never heard of Unified Sports, but over the course of our conversation, I knew that something amazing was about to happen. Before getting too far into what Unified Sports are, let me give a little background.

I first volunteered for Special Olympics a few years ago while I was a staff member at Central Michigan University. Special Olympics Michigan was based on CMU’s campus, and they hosted their Summer Games on campus as well. Late one May, I took my boss up on his invite to volunteer for Summer Games, partly because he said we could volunteer all day Friday without using vacation time. I didn’t have any experience with Special O, but it beats responding to emails on a slow summer day, right?

My volunteer experience resulted in a commitment to volunteering for the Summer Games every year I was at CMU thereafter. I didn’t want to miss it. It was rewarding, it was touching, and it was a lot of fun. I didn’t have any personal tie to Special O before my first experience, but I felt like I had a personal tie after two days of meeting athletes, giving out medals and ribbons, and possibly a record number of high fives. I would go on to recruit my student staff members to volunteer, and even convince myself that taking a ‘Polar Plunge’ in the middle of a Michigan winter into a hole cut in the ice of a pond was a good idea. Anything for a good cause, right?

Well it turned out that the commitment to Special Olympics volunteering outlived my time at CMU. As I started my new job at my alma mater this fall, I was in a meeting where our student employees from the Rec Center were deciding which organization to use as a fundraising recipient for the annual 5k. I offered up Special Olympics as a suggestion, citing a natural tie to both a good cause and sport. It didn’t take too much convincing to get our students on board. A month or two later, we hosted the 5k, and had some representation from both Special O staff member Carmen Bannon and athletes at the event. And that day laid the foundation for Rowan Unified Sports.

The basic premise of Unified Sports is that they bring together people with intellectual disabilities (athletes) and people without intellectual disabilities (partners) on the same teams. What they pitched to me in that initial phone call was starting a Unified Sports program on Rowan’s campus that would introduce our students to local Special Olympics athletes using multiple sports, but starting with basketball this spring, and aiming to continue with soccer in the fall. The possibilities for future though include any sport you can form a team though- volleyball, flag football, swim relays, tennis, anything. But we’ll start with basketball. This past Saturday was our first day in the gym with both the group of athletes and the group of partners.

I knew I was interested after that first phone call. But we were going to need more than my interest to make this successful. So after a few conversations with the SONJ staff and my co-workers, we came up with a timeline of events, a rough outline for how this would work on our campus, and started to spread the word about Rowan Unified Sports. I scheduled a few ‘interest meetings’ just to share with people what this was about, sent a few emails advertising those meetings, posted a few Facebook announcements, tried generating some word of mouth, and ultimately crossed my fingers. As awesome as I knew this could be, I was a little nervous that nobody would show up for the first interest meeting.

I was nervous for no reason. The first night we had 17 people come. More at the second meeting. More emails after that. People wanted to get their friends, girlfriends, fraternity brothers involved. The interest kept on coming. This is going to be good.

At the interest meetings, we told people that we needed all of them to attend a training on Unified Sports. As fun as this will be, it’s not as easy as just rolling out the basketballs and letting everyone play some pickup ball. Beyond our interest meetings, our students needed to know more about what they were getting involved in, the impact they would have, and some background about Special Olympics. Matt Willey from the SONJ staff came down and conducted two trainings with our students, partly preparing them for what would take place the first day, but also educating them. Here are some stats he shared with our group that they didn’t know.

-There are 24,000 registered Special Olympics athletes in the state of New Jersey.
-The youngest of those athletes is 2 1/2 years old, and part of the Young Athletes program for children under 8. There is no maximum age. Play as long as you want to play.
-There are 24 different sports offered by SONJ, and 130 different events over the course of the year.

Matt also explained that athletes are classified as anyone with an intellectual disability. It’s not only people with Down Syndrome, but also any intellectual disability.

At training, we were also joined by our first athlete, an awesome guy named Cody. Cody was a little shy at first, but we later learned that Cody is a 4-sport athlete who took a Bronze at nationals.

The goal of our program is to offer a chance for competitive play, in which the athletes and partners play alongside each other against another team of athletes and partners. These will be games, with officials, with score being kept, and with competition. Will it be as tense competition as March Madness? Probably not, but it’s also not meant to be just open layups for athletes. Not that they need that, because there’s some ballers in the bunch. We’ll get to them later.

The program also includes some instruction to it. Some of the athletes may not be ready yet for a competitive 5v5 game, and some of our partners are pretty talented. So there will be some coaching and skill development involved as well.

Eventually, the goal for the program is to have an 8-week season of the teams involved. This semester, we won’t have that long a season just because this is our first time around, and we weren’t able to start next semester. We are learning by the minute, but have big things in mind.

The goal is to make this not just good, but great. This semester, as hopefully compared to the future, will be good. Great will be when we can take this model we are putting in place at Rowan, and bring it to other colleges around the state. Great will be when we have this ready to go at the start of the semester. Great will be when we look to expand beyond basketball and soccer. As good as it was the first Saturday at the Rec, I’m excited for the great.

When referring to the athletes, we are referring to our athletes who aren’t Rowan students who are part of this program. I’m intentionally not putting athletes in quotations, because they are athletes. This is competition. There is athleticism. I won’t be as naive as to say that there is no difference between all of the athletes and all of the Rowan partners. But there is a lot of talent in the pool of athletes. Some were hitting 3’s. During our Skills Assessment Tests, a lot of them were getting scores higher than some of the Rowan students. Not all, but some. Part of the success of this program will lie in the wide range of ability in both the athletes and the partners. It’s not a level playing field in either group. Which makes it fun.

The dedication of the athletes can’t be questioned. Our program started at 10am Saturday morning. I got to the Rec around 8:30. One of the athletes beat me there. In fact, Mike was there before the Rec opened at 8. He was ready to play.

Their skills can’t be questioned either. One athlete, Brooke, went so seamlessly through our dribbling drills, that I pointed her out to one of our students and told her that Brooke could play for a lot of our IM teams. No exaggeration.

Their personalities also can’t be questioned. While talking to one athlete named Alex, it became quickly apparent that this young man lacked no confidence. He wasn’t too shy to tell me that he can shoot from halfcourt, make 3’s, complete a reverse layup, and averages 25 rebounds per game. While debating the truth to his self-proclaimed stats, I asked him, ‘Well, can you dunk.” He smirked, tapped me on the arm, and pointed to the sign on the backboard in our gym that says ‘NO DUNKING’. Touche, Alex. You win this one.

Their potential can’t be questioned. Not every athlete was as confident as Alex. One who was present on Saturday was participating in his very first Special Olympics event. He doesn’t know the rules yet, and was quite shy. What’s important isn’t how he felt on the first week, but how he’ll feel at the end.

As much as this partnership relies on the awesomeness of the athletes involved, it relies equally as much on the awesomeness of the partners, our Rowan students.

During one of the very first discussions about getting Unified started, the idea was on the table to possibly see if we could include this as part of the class curriculum. The idea was quickly discarded. While we surely we could have gotten some dedicated students that route, we didn’t want this to be something anyone was required to do. We wanted people who wanted to be there on a Saturday morning, not people that were first to roll out of bed for class.

The response of the students has been awesome. We have people from the Rec Center staff, people from Adaptive Physical Education classes, people from varsity athletics, people from sport clubs, people from Greek life, people who probably didn’t play sports, and just people who thought this would be a fun thing to do. It’s not any one group of people, except Rowan students. To see 50 students in the Rec Center by 10am Saturday morning filling up the courts was awesome. All for the experience. Not for class, not for pay. Just there. Making a difference. That was awesome.

With almost every athlete came a parent. Or two. Maybe a sibling, or a grandparent. We put out all the chairs we had, and most of them were packed. The parents were there talking to the partners, cheering on the athletes, supporting what was going on, and helping us get to know their children, and getting to know us in the process. You could tell that some of them were enjoying being there as much as anyone with a basketball in their hands.

By design, the athletes and the partners are all close in age. While Special O has athletes as young as 2 1/2, and lists ’99’ as an age in the Summer Games program, we didn’t have that wide an age range. I believe they targeted athletes who were similar in age to the college students.

I don’t know this for a fact, but some of the athletes and partners may have gone to high school together. And if there is no direct link, some of them surely went to high school with someone LIKE people from the other group. And there’s a good chance they may not have sat at the same lunch table. They may have been in the same schools, and never known each other too well. Maybe never shared a game of hoops, maybe never shared a conversation.

Which leads to the beauty of Unified Sports. It promotes inclusion. It breaks down those barriers and puts those people on the same teams. Has them cheering each other on, and I’m sure, in time, talking a little trash to each other.

One parent said to me, very casually, how much she was enjoying being there Saturday. Her son, she said, had been picked on his whole life. Probably never hung out with the ‘athletes’ in high school. And there he was Saturday, taking an outlet pass from someone wearing Greek letters, in a short scrimmage being officiated by a power forward from the varsity basketball team. A few years ago, this might have never happened with these three individuals. But now, inclusion exists for all of them. Lives are changing.

Being unified, through sport. What a beautiful thing.

And that was just the first day together in the gym. Everywhere you turned, someone was smiling.

What a beautiful thing.

My hope is that this blog will be used not just to post weekly updates on Rowan Unified Sports, and how things go on Saturday, but also to share some testimonials from some of the people involved, whether athletes, parents, partners, anyone at all really. If you have anything you would like to share, please email it to me at

-Gary Baker


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