Special Olympics Promote Inclusion With Unified Partners

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Photo Courtesy: Special Olympics Broward County

By Molly Griswold, Swimming World College Intern.

“We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.” -JK Rowling

Division can occur both within and between sports teams due to a variety factors. Unification, however, plays a vital role in success for all sports, including swimming. Often better than going solo, teammates can join together to accomplish specific individual and team goals. Despite historical separation of competitions featuring athletes with versus those without disabilities, Special Olympics has vowed to bridge the gap. To promote cohesive practice and play, the organization has created a program referred to as Unified Sports

According to Special Olympics, “Unified Sports was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding for athletes with and without intellectual disabilities.”

Unified Swimming in Action

Broward County Special Olympics in South Florida is just one entity that participates in Unified Sports. Athletes participate in open-water swims (usually a mile long) alongside a “partner”. Swimmers race side-by-side, and upon completion with medals wrapped around their necks, share their victories together.

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Nova Southeastern University Swimmers and Special Olympic athletes pose with their medals. Photo Courtesy: Broward County Special Olympics

A Swim Miami Mile recently took place on May 5, 2019, at the Miami Marine Stadium. The event was organized in conjunction with the three-day 2019 U.S. Open Water Swimming Championships running concurrently at the same venue. As the almost 400 competitors began their races with the Miami skyline in sight, ten Special Olympics athletes and their Unified Partners entered the water as one of the “waves” (similar to heats in pool races).

Within this environment, the merging of athletes helps to create relationships and promote inclusion. 

Hannah Pariseault, Nova Southeastern University swimmer and special education major, talks about her experience with Unified Sports: “Unified Sports promote social inclusion and tolerance, which is so important for all athletes with and without intellectual disabilities. My own experience as a partner in the open water mile swim with Special Olympics Broward County creates an incredible bond between partner and athlete that can break down negative attitudes. Unified Sports for me promote inclusion in sports and everyday life in a positive and fun atmosphere. I feel grateful that I have the opportunity to be a part of this extraordinary program.”

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Hannah Pariseault (far right) pictured with Special Olympics athletes and partners. Photo Courtesy: Special Olympics Broward County

Embracing Camaraderie Through Competition

Many of the athletes participating in Special Olympics have been involved for countless years. The swimmers and families have therefore been able to witness the evolution of inclusion.

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Gianni Mercado and Margaret Johnson pose with unified partner and friend, Molly Griswold. Photo Courtesy: Molly Griswold

Gianni Mercado has been swimming with the Special Olympics for over seven years. Although a natural sprinter, Mercado worked diligently for three years to compete in open water competition. Even before Unified Sports existed, he competed in the Swim Miami series and has done extremely well. Even more important than performance reasons is the social aspect. Mercado explains the driving force behind his aquatic pursuits: “I like swimming with Special Olympics because I meet new friends.”

His mother, Margaret Johnson, talks about the importance of unified sports for everyone involved: “The inclusion of our athletes is so important for not only their social skills but a way for them to show off their amazing swimming ability. It is so important for inclusion of our athletes because it is life changing for them as well as those in their presence. We are blessed for those who participate and continue to spread the word to get more involved.”

Unified Sports does not only aid in creating meaningful friendships and fun for those who participate, but it also sheds light on the greater importance of recognition and inclusion. Through this program, Special Olympic athletes showcase their outstanding courage, competitiveness and capabilities.

Two of Broward County’s athletes, Gina Grant and Lee Scharf, qualified to compete at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi this spring. In fact, Scharf went on to win Gold in the 1500 for open water swimming.

The “Finish” is Just the Beginning

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Running into the ocean at the start of the swim. Photo Courtesy: Special Olympics Broward County

Ryan Ruch, Manager of Sports Training and Competition for Special Olympics Florida – Broward County, reflects on the importance of breaking these barriers and igniting change for the future.

“Unified Sports can have such a profound impact on not only the lives of Special Olympics athletes, but also their Unified Partners. It breaks down any preconceived images of what someone with intellectual disabilities can’t do, and focuses on what they can do alongside those without ID. It also changes school and community climates, showing positive growths and a decline in bullying.”

Allowing athletes to swim together as Unified Partners is a huge step for understanding social impact. It is crucial to look beyond differences and to participate “as one”. In those brightly colored caps running down the beach, there is no distinction between athletes with or without disabilities. 

Unification happens as athletes chat among themselves before the start of the race or when partners physically mirror each other’s strokes during the swim. But more significantly, unification at its best occurs when a Special Olympic athlete says to his or her partner, “Let’s run to the finish line together.”

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Jogging to the finish line. Photo Courtesy: Special Olympics Broward County

Parallel footprints created by running up the beach are symbolic of the purpose and importance of Unified Partners altogether. Step by step and side by side, we are all stronger together. 

~To find out more information about becoming a Special Olympics volunteer, click here.

To learn about becoming an athlete, click here. ~

-All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.