Three Federal Way soccer players got the chance of a lifetime. Cody Peterson, Jowell Figueras and John Emmitt just returned from Costa Rica, where they represented the United States at the 2013 Central American and Caribbean Unified Soccer Invitational.
The 12-country tournament included teams from Mexico, Cuba, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Paraguay and Costa Rica. Peterson, Figueras and Emmitt were a part of Special Olympics Team USA, which was made up entirely of Washington and Oregon athletes. The Federal Way trio's Team USA finished in sixth place, with Ecuador winning the championship.
The tournament was organized by Special Olympics Latin America and Special Olympics Costa Rica, along with the Costa Rican Football Federation.
Peterson, Figueras and Emmitt were among eight Special Olympians who were combined with eight Unified Partners from the Sounders FC Pre-Academy program. The three Federal Way residents were picked by Special Olympics Washington Vice President of Program Development Joe Hampson, who hand-selected the best players in the region. The tournament was played May 9-16 at a pair of stadiums in San Jose, Costa Rica.
“I’m very impressed with how well the group has come together. Both sides have done well adjusting to each other’s strengths,” said Sounders FC team operations assistant Dennis Sanchez, who served as coach for the tournament, on SoundersFC.com. “You can see where the athletes have improved, just by being around the Pre-Academy players.”
Special Olympics Unified Sports brings together athletes with and without intellectual disabilities, who train and compete on the same teams. Throughout the year, in a variety of sports ranging from basketball and soccer to golf and skiing, Unified athletes build their bodies, sharpen their skills, challenge the competition and have fun. It’s a physical workout that builds friendships and character, and also inspires greatness in all who participate.
Unified programs have existed for the past two decades, born from the idea that athletic events can be especially transformative when they include individuals with special needs who play alongside those who don’t.
During matches, teams must play six Special Olympics athletes and five Unified Partners at a given time. On the 16-man roster, each player was required to play 60 minutes or more during the group stage, with each match made up of two 30-minute halves.
Team USA finished strong in the highly-competitive tournament despite going to Costa Rica at a disadvantage, according to Sanchez. Most of the teams involved had trained together for a year or longer, while Team USA began training together in March. The squad only had eight training sessions and one practice game before departing for Central America.
“For us, it was trial and error from the beginning,” Sanchez said. “I think we’ve turned some heads here. It’s the American spirit. We’re going to work harder than you. We like the underdog role.”
While this tournament was used as a World Cup qualifier for the Central American countries, Team USA will enter into the North American championships next summer in New Jersey with a trip on the line to Brazil for the Special Olympics Unified World Cup in 2014.
Peterson, Figueras and Emmitt have all been a part of the Federal Way Public Schools' Special Olympics/Unified programs, which are open to any student attending kindergarten through 12th grade, as well as students in transition programs.
Federal Way's high-school level Unified soccer team, which included Peterson and Emmitt, 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.
The school district has always been on the cutting edge of Special Olympics. 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 in the district. Participants build self-esteem and fitness while gaining the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities and meet new people.
Aside from soccer, Federal Way also offers bowling, basketball 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.