Earlier this month, the student leaders and community athletes of Colorado State University (CSU) in Fort Collins, Colorado celebrated being named one of the ESPN Top 5 Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools. The Top 5 were chosen from a list of 34 schools across the US who made the 2019 ESPN Honor Roll for their dedication to Unified Sports.

Only two universities made the Honor Roll list, noting them as going above and beyond to make their campuses inclusive—congrats to CSU and the University of Wisconsin-Madison!

Adam Walsh, Assistant Director of Intramurals at CSU, is quick to point the credit for this honor back to the students, who really are the heart of it all. “We are honored to be named a top unified school,” he says, “but understand that this honor is a direct reflection of the students who lead Special Olympics College at CSU; the student organization’s passion and drive for inclusion and community has made the program what it is. A huge shout out to Mallory Gustin and Liz Belecky for their outstanding leadership.  Campus recreation and intramural sports have simply provided the resources and avenues necessary for students to engage with Special Olympic Athletes in our community and state by removing some barriers they might have otherwise faced.”

On November 16, ESPN’s Michele Steele joined the Special Olympics College Club at CSU in presenting the banner during halftime of the CSU v Air Force football game. The presentation was the culmination of well-deserved celebratory events and inclusive programming, including a Unified flag football intramural game, a social night filled with games and a stress management station, and a tailgate before the big game. During the tailgate, the Unified athletes and partners were invited to walk with the CSU football team during their “Ram Walk.”

While the celebration was spectacular and well-deserved, the real impact of offering such strong Unified programming has been occurring for some time. “There have been so many positives as a result of offering Unified programming on our campus,” Adam says. “Personal relationships fostered out of shared interests between Athletes and students, the opportunity for students to engage in tangible ways and contribute to the university’s mission, and being able to experience first-hand the joy that community brings really has made lasting impacts for everyone involved.”

CSU shows no signs of slowing down. “We started with about 10 students four years ago and now we routinely have 40-50 people show up to play weekly; keeping that kind of forward momentum is critical to long-term success,” Adam says.

As the Unified Sports movement continues to grow on campuses from coast to coast, CSU’s leadership will continue to be key in helping model the type of student development that comes from this opportunity. Developing competencies through inclusive practices is a skillset ever more relevant as our students graduate into tomorrow’s leaders and world-shapers.

Want to know more about Unified Sports? There will be several opportunities at the NIRSA 2020 Annual Conference to learn more about Special Olympics and get involved with the Unified movement! From a preconference opportunity to education sessions to a Unified Experience in the Expo Hall, be sure to check out all the great ways to help your campus live Unified!

Director of Advocacy & Strategic Partnerships at | NIRSA Profile

Erin O'Sullivan is currently the Director of Advocacy & Strategic Partnerships at NIRSA.