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Special Olympics Unified basketball bridges the gaps
The atmosphere was electric inside the gym at Saghalie Middle School on Wednesday night.
The players on four basketball teams chomped at the bit to get on the court. The fans in the bleachers were ready to watch, and the entire Decatur High School cheerleading squad was in full regalia, setting the mood.
Getting excited to watch Decatur play a basketball game is nothing new in Federal Way. The school has always been known as being basketball crazy. The Gators’ boys basketball program has qualified for the past six state tournaments and 13 overall.
But these weren’t your “normal” Decatur basketball players on the court Wednesday night. The 18 teenagers were part of the school’s Special Olympics Unified basketball program.
Teri Robbins and Chase Ralphs are building another basketball dynasty at Decatur. The mother-son combination coaches Decatur’s two Unified basketball teams, which includes the defending state champions.
Decatur rolled to the title in the Seniors Unified Division during the 2012 Special Olympics Winter Games in Wenatchee last March. Decatur dominated the Puyallup High School Vikings in the state title game, 64-34, and the current Gators are a combined 10-0 this season and seem primed for a repeat.
But state titles aren’t the most important thing, according to Robbins, who also works as a para-educator at Decatur.
“Win or lose, everybody has a smile on their face,” she said.
That’s always been the mantra for the Special Olympics. However, the Unified Sports arm is a little bit different. The teams join people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. It was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding.
On the basketball court, there has to be three Special Olympians on the floor at all times, paired with two non-Special Olympians.
“We do the sports, but we also do get-togethers,” Robbins said. “We really are trying to bridge the gaps. We want everybody to feel like they belong.”
(Pictured: Decatur’s Cody Peterson looks to pass the ball at Saghalie Middle School.)
Kevin Young knows all about athletic success. The Decatur senior starred for the Gator football team and is set to play in the fall at Central Washington University. Young was Decatur’s only first-team, All-South Puget Sound League 3A defender after leading the league in interceptions.
But, even with all his athletic accomplishments, Young has been impressed with the level of competition on the basketball court for the Decatur Unified team.
“I thought that it was just going to be special kids running around playing basketball,” Young said. “But when I actually started playing and competing, I found out they played at a pretty high level. It changed my perspective.”
With Unified basketball, modified rules require at least three players with cognitive disabilities for each team on the court at all times. The remaining players can be partner athletes like Young, who typically do not take many shots.
“People underestimate how good the teams are,” Ralphs said. “They are way off the mark. No one really knows what can be done on the court. I have had coaches after games who are just shocked at what we can do.”
Both Decatur teams played in a jamboree last weekend and easily won all six games they played. They also dominated their two games Wednesday.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said senior Michael Gilkey. “Some of these kids come down and shoot it right in your face. It’s kind of incredible. They are really something else.”
Unified programs have existed for the past two decades, born from the idea that athletic events can be especially transformative when they include individuals who have special needs who play alongside those who don’t.
In 2008, with money from the U.S. Department of Education, the Special Olympics began putting the programs into schools. More than 2,000 schools in 42 states have unified athletic programs, with varying levels of intensity.
Decatur isn’t the only school in Federal Way Public Schools to have unified sports programs. Todd Beamer has a basketball team and took on the Gators on Wednesday, along with Ingraham High from Bellevue.
Decatur’s Unified program is the envy of Federal Way.
“Other schools don’t have a person like me,” Robbins said with a smile.
“The main thing is that we are trying to be a family,” Young said. “It just feels right to me. This is the best way I could do that and have fun at the same time.”
(Pictured: Decatur High School sophomore Jowell Franzia-Figuerahs plays defense against a player from Ingraham High on Wednesday night at Saghalie Middle School. Decatur won the game.)
In total, the school district’s Special Olympics/unified programs are open to any student attending kindergarten through 12th grade, as well as students in transition programs.
The Federal Way high-school level Unified soccer team finished fourth at the 2010 Special Olympics USA National Games in Nebraska. The team received a $12,000 grant from the United States Department of Education.
Federal Way has always been on the cutting edge of allowing students with disabilities to participate in sports.
Federal Way Public Schools is one of a few districts in the state that offers students with disabilities a chance to get out and play. There are currently about 100 student-athletes participating each season.
The program is free for students attending kindergarten through 12th grade within the district. Participants build self-esteem and fitness while gaining the opportunity to participate in an extracurricular activity at school and meet new people.
Aside from basketball, Federal Way also offers bowling, soccer and track.
For more information about the district’s Special Olympics athletic programs, contact Sharon Boyle at (253) 945-5576 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more online about Special Olympics in Washington, visit specialolympicswashington.org. You can also make donations to the organization through the website.