The local Unified Basketball 2023 WIAA winter season is underway. Teams competed on Saturday, January 28 at Yelm High School. The Unified Sports program partners with Special Olympics as athletes with intellectual disabilities compete in various activities including clubs, fundraisers, inclusion campaigns, robotics and year-round sports like basketball and soccer. Yelm hosted this week’s games and was joined by Unified teams from Olympia, River Ridge, and North Thurston, as well as the joint team from Tumwater and Black Hills high schools.
North Thurston High School Unified coach and advisor Erika Dean stated that the goal with Unified Sports is to bring students with and without disabilities together to form positive relationships and give all the students involved an opportunity to have a whole lot of fun on the basketball court together. “We have quite a few new athletes this year and almost all of our partners are also new to the program and the key for us is the relationships,” Dean remarked. “Forming bonds and friendships and embracing what Unified is all about and seeing past the differences in one another and instead seeing each person as a new opportunity for friendship is just what is so great about the program.”
River Ridge coach Kelly Gabrinetti stated how inclusion is key to the program. “The most amazing part of this year so far is how the partners and athletes have worked together and made a team of inclusion,” Gabrinetti remarked after his game against Yelm. “I have seen our partners make our athletes feel that they can do anything and that is just key to this relationship”.
North Thurston parent Wendy Lagerquist was present to support her son Sam Tassoni who competes for North Thurston. “Sam has Down syndrome and loves to shoot hoops and this program allows Sam to play like any other kid,” Lagerquist said during Sam’s game against Tumwater and Black Hills. “What is great is when we tell Sam we are going to play his eyes light up and he rushes to get ready to play and is just very excited about playing.”
Olympia coach Becky Blocher, brought a team of nine athletes to compete. “Beyond the skills and learning about basketball our goal is to build relationships and those long-lasting bonds that are built during sports competition, specifically between our athletes and our high school partners,” Blocher stated. “Another win is that our high school ‘partners’ get to experience something that is unmatched as they experience just pure joy cheering on our team and the others.”
The 2023 Unified schedule continues with games at Tumwater High School on February 4 and Olympia High School on February 11, both starting at 9 a.m. Olympia’s Unified team also hosts their Pack the Gym February 1 at Olympia High School at 7 p.m. and North Thurston hosts February 8 at 6:30 p.m.