GOOAAALLL: Unified Soccer players win more than matches

MIDVALE, Utah (ABC4) – Professional soccer could take a page from the playbook of today’s Unified Sports Soccer Tournament between Canyons AND Jordan Hillcrest High School School Districts.

From using the rock, paper and scissors method to decide who gets the ball first, to giving hugs and cheers regardless of who scored the goal, the sportsmanship of the nearly 200 student-athletes and the work they put into the tournament could set the standard for a winning plays regardless of level.

Unified sports combine general education students, many of whom have no specific athletic training, with special education students. They work together as teammates and compete in various sports.

Currently, through a partnership with Special Olympics Utah, districts sponsor four UHSAA-sanctioned sports: football, basketball, track and field and swimming. The districts also added bocce and golf for middle school athletes.

It’s not just students who understand the importance of these games. Teachers like Brighton High School’s Jared Denslow realize that sports are more than just scorecards and ribbons. The relationships students form shape them on and off the field.

“They love playing with their peers and feeling accepted and feeling like they are just like everyone else. That’s what it’s all about, right? Just being a part of something,” he said of his students. “When you feel like you are part of something, you grow. My children’s behavior has improved in the classroom, they are happier, they look forward to it and it is something that has changed many people’s lives, including mine.”

Denslow teaches extended core classes for students with intellectual disabilities and says it’s the best job in the world.

“It’s degrading,” he said with emotion. “I am a very happy person.”

Denslow was just one of the faculty members who cheered on all the teams. Superintendents from Canyons and Jordan School Districts were on hand for a little friendly competition. There were cheerleaders and student-athletes, as well as student volunteers who kept scoreboards and set up equipment.

The aim of this sport is integration and building relationships between students. Every athlete goes on the field wearing a #playunified T-shirt. Students who are “peers” who mentor and collaborate with Special Olympics athletes in activities look forward to opportunities for intense play outside of school. The smiles, hugs and high fives are endless and the bonds stretch over the years.

Smiles and waves of appreciation greeted one senior Riverton teacher who found a student she had become friends with in middle school. After the game, they quickly reunited for a hug and a photo.

They explained that they had remained friends and hung out on and off over the past few years. Sending photos to a parent who couldn’t make it to the game, the mom quickly replied how much it softened her heart to have someone like Senior in her daughter’s life.

Courtnie Worthen, principal of Utah’s Unified Champion Schools for Special Olympics, smiles with pride as she watches students interact.

“We are raising the next generation of special education teachers,” she said. “[The best part of the day] is inclusion. Students with and without disabilities train together, compete with each other, creating lifelong friendships on the field.”

Worthen is excited about the growth of unified sports. He says they started five years ago with eight teams and had twenty teams competing in Canyons and Jordan. There will be eight more statewide tournaments leading up to the state championship. Unified’s development strengthens not only gaming, but also the academic life of students.

“What we see translates to what happens on the field, in the classroom,” Worthen said of the difference Unified Sports makes. “Students are starting to feel more comfortable; they feel more included, they feel like they belong and are part of their school. Test scores are up, attendance is up, and the overall school culture is amazing. We celebrate difference, we celebrate people’s ability to be part of something bigger than themselves and to be part of their school.”

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