Champions Together: Unified Sports® in Action

Now entering its 3rd year, Special Olympics Virginia’s “Champions Together” unified track & field program has made it past the “pilot stage” as it officially has a presence in 49 high schools across Virginia—and counting.

As a sport that is able to welcome all ages and skill levels, track & field was the perfect choice when creating the Champions Together model. It’s suitable for high school-aged students competing in Big Feet Meets, to the middles in Meet in the Middles and elementary-aged athletes competing in Little Feet Meets. But the high school model has proven to be the most fertile ground for growth as each year more and more schools and students are eager to join the Champions Together network.

At the base of the Champions Together model is a concept Special Olympics has termed “Unified Sports®.” Unified sports include an equal number of students with and without intellectual disabilities.

“The inclusive model in Unified Sports is used to build a bridge across something that generally divides us [i.e. things that make us different] and use it to bring us together,” explained Rick Jeffrey, President of Special Olympics Virginia.

And these relationships begin to develop long before the actual track & field meets start. For about eight weeks during the spring, students practice together two times a week, growing both as teammates and friends. Champions Together teams become part of the schools’ regular athletic programs and, as such, schools have the option of including these events in their existing varsity track meets.

Champions Together meets typically range from teams representing two schools to teams representing five or six schools. The suggested events include anything from relays to 100M runs to a softball throw to wheelchair slalom races.

The rapid growth of this program is in part thanks to the involvement of the Virginia Department of Education (DOE)and the Virginia High School League (VHSL), which is the governing body of high school sports in the state of Virginia. The VHSL in particular partnered with Special Olympics from the beginning to help design the program and continues to promote it to high schools across the state.

Special Olympics Virginia currently leads Special Olympics in North America in numbers of school-based K-12 program partnerships (400+). Because of these partnerships, they have been able to welcome great additions to the Champions Together program each year.

This year, Katie Botha, Vice President of Development & Communications for Special Olympics Virginia, shared, “We will have our first regional Champions Together meet thanks to the assistance and support of VHSL and the Virginia DOE. This will be a very exciting milestone for us to celebrate!“

At the start, Special Olympics had to lay most of the groundwork, promoting the track & field program by approaching and recruiting schools to come aboard. But as schools have begun to build their programs, they’ve inevitably become part of the promotion task force, seeking out new schools to create more competitive opportunities. The programs also have been speaking for themselves, causing more and more schools to approach Special Olympics about starting their own programs.

And no one can argue with the results. As Rick shared, it changes the students beyond the physical and develops new social skills, attitudes, friendships and mindsets. For most of these Special Olympics athletes, this is the first time they’ve been able to step out into the stadium wearing the team colors and uniforms of their school, and that is a moment never forgotten by the athletes and parents alike.

But as meaningful as these events are for Special Olympics athletes, the biggest impacts are often noticed in the non-disabled students, and the effects are felt throughout the school.

“We have three core values at Special Olympics Virginia – one is respect, one is inclusion and one is unity. Champions Together is building schools that are more respectful in their conduct, more inclusive in their make-up and more unified in their fabric, and making all of their students, regardless of ability level, a part of the fabric of the schools.”

Their initial goal, and a goal they still maintain, was to eventually have a program in all 300 high schools in Virginia. Yet, as Champions Together has taken off, Special Olympics has begun to dream even bigger about what this Unified Sports model could become – eventually adding a second, third or fourth sport into the mix.

Some schools have already begun to experiment with adding a new Unified Sports program, primarily basketball, and have seen success with these programs. This gives Special Olympics hope moving forward that they could eventually integrate enough sports programs to keep the student-athletes unified year-round.

At its core, Champions Together is about building relationships, learning to work together, and laying a foundation of inclusion for the entire school. And for Rick, it’s the fruits of those relationships that will transform entire communities.

“It’s an opportunity for unified teammates to provide role models and mentoring, and for the Special Olympics athletes to provide unified teammates with an opportunity to work with somebody a little bit different than them and learn that the things that make us different really and truly make us all more the same.”