Meet the Special Olympic ‘Unified’ soccer team that epitomizes togetherness – USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES — “USA. USA. USA.”
The chants echo at a jam-packed Balboa Sports Park field as 16-year-old Ordray Smith drapes an American flag over his back following his team’s bronze-medal winning victory Friday against China. Autographs are next. Kids greet him with sharpies. Then it’s team photo time and his teammates embrace him with pride.
His smile tells several invigorating stories.
It tells the story of patriotism. “It’s a great experience to represent the United States of America and meet new people from other countries,” Smith said. “I love playing for my country.”
It tells the story of accomplishment. Smith and his teammates have been training and playing together for over a year with the goal of winning a medal, which they did in a 2-1 redemption victory following a close loss to Czech Republic the previous day.
It tells the story of togetherness. These aren’t just teammates. They’re best friends. More than that, they’re “friends for life.”
Smith has intellectual disabilities. Some of teammates, however, do not. They are called “partners” and when united together, they’re all the same. Smith is a member of Team USA’s ‘Unified’ Soccer team. In total, there are 1,500 Unified sports participants from 104 delegations competing in 13 different sports at the World Games. Teams are assembled based on age range and ability. The athletes on this particular team all hail from the same high school in smalltown Land O’ Lakes, Fla. It’s hot here in California, but as several of the athletes point out, “there’s no humidity here compared to Florida.”
Watching this co-ed team play, you can’t tell the difference between the partners and those with intellectual disabilities. As it is with any successful team, every player has his or her own strong-suit. And, when meshed together in the right way, team cohesiveness and synergy are in full force.
“The goal of Unified is that you can’t tell the difference between athlete and partner,” said coach Vicky King. “Our partners recognize the strengths of their teammates with intellectual disabilities and they feed off the strengths of our partners. I don’t coach this team any different than I coach my high school team. People think, ‘oh well you’re just going to go easy on them because they have intellectual disabilities.’ Nope.
“The core of this team has been together for about four years and we’ve added different players as others move on. They’ve really bonded. We are one big family. They’ve formed a tremendous lifelong bond.”
With soccer, in particular, intuitiveness of teammates is completely necessary. Each pass, each goal scored at these Games signifies the unity that this team promotes.
“When one of us gets down, someone picks us back up,” said Joseph Tramel III, 20, who has intellectual disabilities.
In essence, this Unified team is a microcosm of the Special Olympics’ main message: Inclusion. There’s been no shortage of it here at these World Games — from fans passionately cheering on half marathoners Saturday morning to thousands of athletes striking the signature pose throughout the week as a boast of confidence that sadly can’t be replicated anywhere else in this world.
When the World Games end, it’s back to reality. And it’s a cold one.
“We know without a doubt people with intellectual disabilities are isolated and excluded,” said Special Olympics chairman Timothy Shriver. “Our mission is not to run big events. Our goal is to create an opportunity for connection. Sooner rather than later, we need to have an inclusive sports program in every school in the nation. We should have a Title IX for every school for those with intellectual disabilities and call it Title Unified.”
Unified sports teams like this one offer a simple yet brilliant antidote to negative stereotypes about those with intellectual disabilities. In many ways, this is a typical sports team. Beneath the surface, the meaning is much more profound. The players don’t just represent playing unified. They represent living unified. Every player is different, but when put together, they excel. Why keep it relegated to the field?
“Don’t think, just do,” Kyle Townsend texts his coach about his firm message to others about joining a team with intellectual disabilities. “It’s been the greatest decision of my life.”
As Shriver astutes, inclusion isn’t just a term or an idea. It’s a movement, and one that needs as much fuel as possible. Whether it’s in school or in the workforce, people with intellectual disabilities are undoubtedly stigmatized. Weird. Stupid. Different. The list goes on. Not with this team. Their bond carries over off the field.
“On this team, some of the athletes with intellectual disabilities had pretty low self-esteem coming in,” King said. “Either because they’ve been put down their whole life in a mainstream setting or because they weren’t recognized as having a disability until later in life and they were often called dumb with the lowest IQ in a regular classroom. The partners, just by treating them as regular teammates without looking at them differently, they’ve gradually brought them back to life. It’s really powerful.”
And, as any of the partners will tell you, it’s a two-way street.
“Playing on this team means everything to me,” said Haley Eckel, a 16-year old partner who also plays for King on the girls high school team. “It’s like playing with my second family. I’m so proud to call everyone my teammates. We’re definitely with each other a lot off the field. It shows on the field because we all get along so well and care about each other.”
“It’s just such an awesome experience representing our country with this team,” said partner Tommy Guglielmello, 18. “We’ve worked hard every day, being together and pushing each other for the same goal, while at the same time having so much fun.”
Sitting at a round table following the team’s win against China, Smith is talking about his love for California.
“It’s the awesomest state I’ve ever been to,” Smith said, referencing the team’s trip to Disney.
“It’s a city,” Guglielmello whispers. He doesn’t tell him condescendingly or make fun of him. His warmth is felt at the table. Smith feels OK being wrong and corrected. With the season concluded, the players’ synergy remains intact.
When asked who the team’s best player is, silence ensues. No player has an instinctual response. Coach takes cue.
“There isn’t one with this team,” King said. “It takes all 12 players to make this thing happen. No one can do it by themselves. One superstar never makes it happen. It takes everybody.”
Players affirmatively nod their head.
King often forms her team in a huddle as a simple way to include everyone and affirm that the circle isn’t whole without everyone. She points to two disadvantages her team had in the Games: Soccer isn’t the main sport in the States like it is for practically every country around the world. And age. This is one of the youngest teams in the Special Olympics.
“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” Tramel said to counter.
“Exactly,” King said, smiling.
In a Chick-fil-A on the way to the World Games, a worker asked King where her team was going to compete. She said the Special Olympics. Stunned, the worker told her that the team didn’t resemble a typical “special” team. Before they even made it to California, their togetherness painted the perfect picture of inclusion.
The perception, even for a moment, was changed. Mission accomplished.