By Jesse Drake
You've practiced the shot 200 times. Now it's game time, it counts, and your teammate just dished you the basketball. You square up to shoot, the ball is on target … nothing but net.
Take that euphoria, times it by 10, and you’re close to the thrill experienced by athletes participating in the Fall Sports Classic, an annual Special Olympics of Utah event held this year on October 14 and 15 at the University of Utah and Rose Park Golf Course.
Athletes aren’t the only ones who enjoy the competition – so do coaches and Unified Partners. These are teammates, role models and assistant coaches during practices, volunteers like UIT’s Kevin Cai and Andrew Schneider. Cai works in Common Infrastructure Services (CIS) Monitoring; Schneider is a student intern on the Identity and Access Management (IAM) team in the Information Security Office.
"I enjoy helping out, and I've been looking for different ways of doing that," Schneider said. "I've been playing basketball since I was about 5 years old, so for me, this seemed like a perfect fit. Besides the mentoring aspect, it's a good way to get exercise and play different sports."
Like Schneider, Cai has played team sports since childhood, but basketball is by far his favorite because “it strongly emphasizes cooperation.” Yet for Cai, the game is only part of it.
"It's a chance to make friends," he said. "When you get to serve others, it creates a special bond between you and that person because it's like, wow, this person dedicated his time or his money to help me. I feel people recognize that and that’s how you create these awesome relationships with either people you help or those that are volunteering alongside you."
Nearly 1,000 athletes and coaches from across Utah competed for gold, silver and bronze medals and ribbons in aquatics, basketball, bocce and golf, along with the Motor Activities Training Program (MATP). The culmination of summer competitions, the Fall Classic was an opportunity for athletes to showcase their hard work, determination and talent.
The basketball tournament at HPER North involved teams of varying degrees of competition. Cai, Schneider and Lee Shuster, CIS service monitoring engineer, coached the “Dyno Star Dragons” Special Olympic delegation. The Dyno Stars typically include about 30 athletes on various teams. Sporting events change throughout the year – soccer in the summer and volleyball in the winter, for example.
Shuster's wife, College of LawProfessor Linda Smith, coaches a team consisting entirely of "special" athletes. Shuster's team is part of Unified Sports, which joins people of similar age and ability – with and without intellectual disabilities – on the same team, an alliance he said "makes practices more fun and the games more challenging and exciting for all."
"Having sport in common is just one more way that preconceptions and false ideas are swept away," Shuster said.
Most young people experience team sports as a rite of passage. Growing up with a physical or intellectual disability, however, often precludes participation on a school team. Special Olympics fills that void, bringing people together for fun physical activities that foster interaction and boost self-esteem.
Shuster is proud of his UIT colleagues for participating, and encourages others to consider partnering with Special Olympics, too.
"We hope to instill a sense of public service within UIT, while recognizing the important contributions of young people like Kevin and Andrew," Shuster said.
"Go for it," he said. "It's less about what you are volunteering for and more about the fact that you are giving back, and the relationships that you create by volunteering are awesome. It reminds me of a quote from Elizabeth Andrew. She said, 'volunteers do not necessarily have the time; they have the heart.'"
Ready? Here's how to get involved: http://sout.org/getinvolved/become-a-volunteer/
Below are more photos from the game.