Update, August 25: The roster in this announcement has been updated since its initial publication.

By Alyssa Whitney

NIRSA: Leaders in Collegiate Recreation and Special Olympics—the world’s largest provider of sports training and competition for people with intellectual disabilities—recently announced a shared goal to expand, beginning in 2016, Special Olympics Unified Sports® programs and opportunities at participating NIRSA member colleges and universities throughout the United States.

Unified Sports is a Special Olympics program that brings people all of ages, both with and without intellectual disabilities, together as teammates. With the support of partner organizations like NIRSA and ESPN, the global presenting sponsor of Unified Sports, this is one of the fastest growing areas of Special Olympics—globally, more than 854,000 athletes and unified partners currently participating in Unified Sports.

For years, NIRSA member institutions have been partnering with Special Olympics to host Special Olympics Unified Sports (read more). Since 2011, in fact, a Special Olympics Unified Sports division has been available during at least one NIRSA Regional Flag Football Tournament (read more). The announcement to expand Special Olympics Unified Sports programs and opportunities at participating NIRSA member colleges and universities throughout the U.S. comes on the heels of meetings held at UCLA during the recent 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles (read more) between NIRSA staff and volunteer leaders and Special Olympics’ North America regional leaders.

The announcement emphasizes the two organizations’ aligned missions, visions, cultures, as well as their shared dedication to the promotion of inclusion, community, and health for all through participation in sport. It represents the fruitful conversations between leaders from NIRSA and Special Olympics, as well as thought leaders and practitioners in collegiate recreation, including:

  • Kalee Baker, Program Outreach Manager, Special Olympics New Jersey
  • Haylie Bernacki, Specialist Unified Sports & College, Special Olympics
  • Mick Deluca, Assistant Vice Chancellor, Campus Life, UCLA
  • Dan Ekonen, Director of Unified Sports, Special Olympics Michigan
  • Lisa Fitzgerald, UCLA Graduate Intern, University of Central Florida
  • Ava Kwasnieski, UCLA Graduate Intern, The Ohio State University
  • Valerie McCutchan, NIRSA Director of National Sports Programs
  • Alex Prano, Competitive Sports Coordinator, UCLA
  • Craig Pippert, Senior Manager, Sports Development, Special Olympics
  • Stan Shingles, NIRSA President, Assistant Vice President, University of Central Michigan
  • Bill Shumard, Executive Director, Special Olympics Southern California
  • Chaka Sutton, EVP of Unified Sports, Special Olympics Colorado
  • Pam Watts, CAE, Executive Director, NIRSA: Leaders in Collegiate Recreation
  • Wendy Windsor, Director Cultural & Recreational Activities, UCLA

Part of what is so exciting about Special Olympics Unified Sports is these events’ capacity to offer individuals of all abilities opportunities to join, belong, and be challenged. “Unified Sports uses the universal language of sport as a shortcut to friendship and understanding. When we play unified, we live unified,” says Marc Edenzon, Chief Programs Officer, Special Olympics. Edenzon adds, “We know there is a drop-off in involvement with Special Olympics, for both people with and without intellectual disabilities, after high school graduation. This partnership hopes to combat that issue by providing a continuity and structure for their evolving Special Olympics experience.”

“Through the multiple platforms of Unified Sports, students have opportunities to gain valuable life skills and new perspectives on the power of participation in sports,” explains Stan Shingles, Assistant Vice President at Central Michigan University and President of NIRSA. “As leaders in collegiate recreation, NIRSA member institutions are well poised to help expand the shared experiences of Unified Sports, break down barriers, and show that there is more to sports than winning and losing,” Shingles adds about the new partnership.

Moving forward with an evolving partnership, both organizations hope to use the power of sports to teach values of inclusion through an experiential opportunity such as Unified Sports. Progress toward this goal will provide additional opportunities for students to learn, develop, and live civil engagement. In addition, it will provide support for the mission of colleges and universities to develop leadership skills in students, which include competencies to successfully engage with people of all abilities.

UCLA Assistant Vice Chancellor and NIRSA Past President Mick Deluca calls Unified Sports “a remarkable common experience that highlights courage, determination, and joy. These events bring people together in the spirit of respect, inclusion, and acceptance.” And Lisa Fitzgerald, a Rowan University Unified Sports alum and intern with UCLA Recreation during the Special Olympics World Games—who experienced the power of Unified Sports first-hand—explains: “Unified Sports is more than just a game; it’s a movement and a lifestyle. I’m excited to see it continue to bring hope, change, inclusion, and respect to all of those who spread the message and join in. I can’t wait to see this partnership spread throughout colleges and universities.”

NIRSA is a champion for healthy people and healthy communities. This partnership underscores the alignment between Special Olympics and NIRSA’s missions and values, and strengthens our shared commitment to service, leadership, equity, diversity, inclusion, and a global perspective.

For more information about NIRSA’s partnership with Special Olympics, please contact NIRSA Director of National Sports Programs Valerie McCutchan.