By Alyssa Whitney

The 2015 Special Olympics World Games were hosted by the city of Los Angeles, July 25 – August 2; it was largest single event hosted by the city since the 1984 Olympic Games. The facts and figures of this global event are astonishing: 30,000 volunteers, 7,000 athletes, 3,000 coaches, 177 countries, 27 venues, 25 sports, and 9 days. Though the numbers are staggering, the mission of the World Games is simple: promoting a world of acceptance and inclusion.

The Special Olympics World Games are one of the most powerful vehicles for communicating to the world the abilities and gifts of people with intellectual disabilities (ID). The World Games serve as a catalyst for growth in Special Olympics sports programs in communities around the world and promote awareness among all segments of society.

Campus recreation helps host elite events

Special Olympics is committed to helping “make the world a better, healthier and more joyful place – one athlete, one volunteer, one family member at a time.”  At the forefront of activating this mission and directly involved with the 2015 Special Olympics World Games were some of NIRSA’s very own institutional members. UCLA and University of Southern California (USC) both hosted numerous competitions at selected campus recreation facilities including the John Wooden Center, Pauley Pavilion, and the Uytengsu Aquatic Center to name a few.

Speaking about his experience throughout the week and what it meant to for the UCLA campus to be among the hosts,  UCLA Assistant Vice Chancellor and NIRSA Past President  Mick Deluca explains, “This was more than an event and was truly a life changing people experience. There’s just something so genuinely special in the hearts of these athletes that words fail to describe. You just have to experience the uplifting high-fives, embracing hugs, and joyful dances.  It is hard to put into words the true pride and joy that the World Games represents to our staff, students, and the entire UCLA Community. The intersection of values was on display every moment of the Games.”

Justine Gilman, Director of Recreational Sports and Facilities at USC, echoed Mick’s sentiments, saying “USC was transformed! It was alive with energy and enthusiasm during the event. These World Games were an amazing event and opportunity for all of us in Rec Sports at USC to be a part of.”  Student employees from USC’s Rec Sports were involved as lifeguards, volunteers, and venue assistants.

Representing NIRSA’s Leadership at the competitions and festivities was NIRSA President and Assistant Vice President at Central Michigan University, Stan Shingles. Part of the Honored Guest Program, Stan was able to volunteer in support of the World Games. Over the course of the week, he was seen distributing awards and medals to the athletes with Ambassador for Special Olympics and Olympic great, Rafer Johnson.

Unified flag football game hosted by UCLA Recreation

Amidst of all the excitement of the World Games, UCLA Recreation partnered with Special Olympics, to host a Unified Flag Football game, sponsored by the NFL, on the evening of July 28. Alexandra Prano, Competitive Sports Coordinator at UCLA, explains: this game “represents our support for Unified Sports, and serves as a way to spotlight these types of programs on college campuses.”

The concept of Unified Sports is simple: to join people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team, in an effort to further friendships and understanding. “Special Olympics Unified Flag Football consists of five players per team, three of whom are Special Olympic athletes and the other two are Unified Partners,” Alexandra explains. For this game, “our Unified Partners were students, summer interns and staff from the UCLA community, many of whom are NIRSA members.  The Special Olympics athletes ranged in age but they all played for the Orange County Hawks, a floor hockey team based in Orange County.” Attending the game were NIRSA student and professional members, members of NIRSA’s Board of Directors, members of the NIRSA Headquarters’ staff, all alongside representatives from Special Olympics World Games and the Special Olympics’ Southern California office.

Special Olympics Unified Sports®

Special Olympics Unified Sports® programs are focused on breaking barriers, creating opportunities, making connections, and developing friendships. The programs are as much for the Unified Partners as they are for the Special Olympics athletes. The impact on Unified Partners is clearly articulated by Kyle Urban, Competitive Sports Coordinator at UCLA, who participated as a Unified Partner in the exhibition flag football game:

Playing in the Unified flag football game was one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve ever had playing sports. The idea behind Unified Sports is that they level the playing field and rather than focusing on the differences between those of us who participated, we were able to focus on the unique skill set that every member of our team brought to the table. Though we didn’t walk away with the victory according to the scoreboard, I think we all left the field as winners. Being able to participate in the Unified flag football game at the Special Olympics World Games was a unique and exciting experience. It is a memory I’ll truly cherish forever.

The theme voiced again and again throughout the evening: unforgettable. Evan Gyorkos, Competitive Sports Coordinator at UCLA Recreation and another one of the game’s Unified Partners, calls it “one of the most memorable experiences of his life.” He says, “I was amazed at the competitive mindset the Special Olympics’ athletes brought to the field, at how similar it was to my own.”

Part of what is so exciting about Special Olympics Unified Sports® is the capacity for these events to bring individuals of all abilities an opportunity to both belong and be challenged. Reflecting on how his expectations of the experience compared with the reality of it, Evan says, “Prior to the start of the game I believed the way to be inclusive was to limit my competitiveness—I thought that the two elements of competition and inclusivity were mutually exclusive. But it made me proud to be a part of their competitive spirit and to realize that everyone is participating for the same two experiences: to have fun while remaining competitive.”

Growing the game

NIRSA leaders were truly honored and inspired by their attendance and participation at Special Olympics World Games Los Angeles 2015. And the natural fit for Special Olympics Unified Sports® and college and university campuses, NIRSA is excited about future collaboration. Read more about the alignment between NIRSA and Special Olympics and our joint commitment to growing Unified Sports opportunities on campuses across the U.S.

For more information about NIRSA’s involvement at the Special Olympics World Games Los Angeles 2015, please contact NIRSA’s Director of National Sports Programs, Valerie McCutchan.