Unified Sports: teamwork in truest sense of the word

June 30, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

RALEIGH, N.C. -- They mingled like any team. They played like any team. At times, it was difficult to tell which players were mentally retarded, and which were not.

Say hello to the Maryland Unified Soccer Team, a 2-1 loser to Ohio yesterday at the Special Olympics World Games, but one of the more interesting collections of athletes ever assembled.

The rules state that six players on the field must be Special Olympics athletes, and the other five can be "partners" with no disabilities. It just so happens that Team Maryland also divides evenly on racial lines, and includes a woman.

Unified Sports were introduced by Special Olympics in 1987 and adopted by the Maryland chapter in 1994. They're a logical outgrowth of the inclusion movement but remain a topic of debate within the Special Olympics community.

Some believe that the organization should stick to its original mission and devote all its resources to athletes with disabilities. But the merits of Unified Sports are immediately obvious to anyone who watches the concept at work.

The Special Olympics athletes are treated as equals, and often improve dramatically by playing against elevated competition.

"I've gotten much better playing with the partners," Ryan Hardy said. "They help us out a lot. They help us know when to kick the ball, and when to stay onsides."

The partners, meanwhile, stay active in sports ranging from sailing to softball, and develop a greater understanding of people with mental retardation.

"At first, it was a bit intimidating -- you're a little overwhelmed," said Justin Barnes, 18, one of several Team Maryland players from Pocomoke City (almost all are from the lower Eastern Shore).

"You don't know how to talk to them, to teach them the best way. But really, you don't have to be uncomfortable. They're the best group of people to work with, very big-hearted."

Indeed, the Special Olympics athletes never stop running, never stop hustling. That became a problem in yesterday's intense heat and humidity. They didn't know how to pace themselves and grew exhausted in the 80-minute tournament opener.

Derrick Mills, a partner, scored Maryland's goal, but several Special Olympics athletes made important contributions. Tony Bradley was active all afternoon on the right wing. Hardy had a shot on goal from the left side. Jerry Collick and Earl Holden routinely thwarted attacks by Ohio partners.

The Maryland partners would position their Special Olympics teammates, instruct them where to pass, shout out encouragement. The only time the partners showed frustration was when they bickered with each other.

Still, what happens when a partner spots a Special Olympics athlete open near the goal? Does he attempt a more difficult shot himself, or make the obvious pass?

Mills answered with his feet in a 10-minute preliminary game that helped determine the team's ability level, feeding Special Olympics athlete James Collins for a goal. "It's automatic," Mills said. "That's what we're here for. We're not here for ourselves. We're here to win for everyone else."

Mills pointed to Bradley, standing nearby.

"I gave the ball to Tony today. He had opportunities just like I did," Mills said. "It's totally equal. We're a team. We have to play like one."

In fact, Special Olympics organizers are so adamant about teamwork, they warned coaches at the World Games not to allow partners to dominate play.

"If they feel the partners are taking over the game, they'll penalize you in any way they see sufficient," Team Maryland coach Rick Blessing said.

Still, it isn't always easy for the partners to exercise restraint. Team Maryland spent 90 minutes working on offsides in practice Monday but repeatedly committed that infraction against Ohio, no matter how often the rule was explained.

"It takes patience," Barnes said. "You let the [athletes] know when they make a mistake. But you have to be careful. You don't want to hurt their feelings. And it doesn't take much."

Blessing, a physical education teacher at Cedar Chapel Special School in Snow Hill, cheerfully manages the difficult task of getting the two groups to play as one. He recruited most of the partners, including his son, Bobby, a goalkeeper.

The team includes three brothers with mental retardation, twins Alvin and Calvin White, 36, and Francis, 34. Mindy Bankert, a former Salisbury State player and the team's only woman, jokes that she has "15 brothers and several fathers but at the same time, I feel like the mother hen."

Blessing admits to limited soccer expertise, and said he relies heavily on the partners to provide instruction. Coaching them, however, presents its own set of issues.

One partner, James Skweres, 19, is a cook in a restaurant, and will return home tomorrow because his boss insists that he work the July 4 weekend. Think any members of the U.S. women's soccer team face the same problem?

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