Special Olympics and Unified Sports put on the first Washington collegiate soccer tournament this weekend in Seattle. Both Western and Whatcom Community College had teams playing in the bracket style tournament.
Blue skies and 70 degree weather graced the field as Western students put on their shin guards and cleats, getting ready to hit the field for the Unified Sports soccer tournament held on Saturday, April 18.
Taylor Arbuckle, a sophomore at Western studying special education and elementary education, has been involved with the special education programs since she attended high school.
Arbuckle said the Unified Sports program provides something for college-aged special needs students to look forward to after high school.
Tom McCann, the head of the volunteers, has been working with Unified Sports for about six years. The program has athletes at the middle school and high school levels and now provide soccer for college-aged athletes.
“In our school districts when the special needs athletes turn 21, they go out into the workforce and there are no more sports for them at that point,” McCann said. “So this is creating the opportunity that once they are out of high school, they get to start playing other sports and get to continue playing unified sports, because it stops after they’re 21 but we’re trying to to make it longer than that.”
Each team has five players on the field during every game, three special needs athletes and two partners.
“Unified Sports is where you have special need athletes and then you have partners who are not special needs who help control the game, teaching them to understand where to pass, what direction to go,” McCann said.
Arbuckle said there were 18 colleges around the state at the tournament, and Western placed 4th in their division.
“We are Western students, or Bellingham School District community transitions members, which is the next step for people with intellectual disabilities to start out kind of learning how to live on your own,” Arbuckle said.
Taking the field for their first soccer game, Western had athlete Matthew Best in the goal and the rest of his teammates out ready for the whistle.
“I like a lot of sports, I like goalie,” Best said. “I have been playing [soccer] for a long time but this is my second year playing for Unified.”
Western lost the first match, but beat Pacific Lutheran University in their second match of the day. The team ended up playing Whatcom Community College for third or fourth place in their division. The athletes and partners dueled it out and ended up taking fourth place in the tournament.
“I started four years ago in high school and since then I have been a unified partner and now I’m a coach at Western,” Arbuckle said. “This is the first year they’ve done a college unified soccer tournament. In the past it’s only been for high schools.”
“They plan on growing it to the state and also to national level eventually. The model they have is if you want to play a sport and you want to create a team for it, then go for it,” Arbuckle said. “Special Olympics has bowling, basketball, powerlifting and track so they pretty much have any sport that’s in the Olympics.”
Arbuckle is the team coordinator and head woman in charge out on the field for Western’s team. Delanee Nilles, a junior at Western, is the team’s second coach.
“This is my first ever special Olympics experience,” Nilles said. “I’ve volunteered all throughout high school but this is the first with Special Olympics. I love it, it’s been amazing and awesome getting to know everyone on the team because I didn’t know any of the athletes or any of the partners coming into this.”
The excitement and special bond the partners and athletes have creates a positive environment for every spectator and person involved. The aroma from the eager athletes rubs off throughout everyone on the team.
Unified Sports is all about building friendships and getting to know people you wouldn’t regularly associate yourself with, Arbuckle said.
“We have definitely all bonded and it’s been amazing and it makes me want to get more involved,” Nilles said. “I’m definitely going to be doing a lot more with Special Olympics after this.”
Western is planning on growing and bringing different sports to the unified program in the near future and has been planning on a bowling team.
Building friendships and making new ones, Unified Sports is up and rolling with Western and is rapidly growing throughout the state and country.