It was in 2013 while he was on an annual trip to Indianapolis for the National Federation of High School Coaches that Steve received a unique challenge that changed his perspective on high school athletics. As the representative for Section 7, Steve represents Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California, and Hawaii. These meetings include a stand-in for all eight sections of the United States and provide them a chance to work together to find helpful articles for the nation’s coaches to improve their performance. After working at this particular meeting for multiple grueling hours, the Pennsylvania representative took advantage of a lull to ask Steve about California’s unified sports league. “He asked if we had any unified sports in our state, and I told him that I didn’t know what he was talking about,” Steve said. “After explaining the concept, I still said that we had nothing like that in California that I was aware of.” The man challenged Steve to look into it and potentially begin such a program before gathering for their next convention.
After extensive research, Steve’s interest in the idea multiplied. A couple months after learning about this option in organized sports, Steve attended the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association Conference in Anaheim where he encountered the Special Olympics’ Northern California Chapter. “I got in touch with a representative from there, mentioned to her that I was interested in beginning unified sports at my school, and she got really excited.” It then became a coordinated effort between Steve and the Special Olympics to bring unified sports to Freedom. However, Steve couldn’t have done it without amazing support from his students. “We had students involved every step of the way,” Steve said. “Our general student athletes were responsible for developing the rules and making an after school schedule for practices, location, and dates that would work for both the life skills students and general students.”
Unified Sports is a division of the Special Olympics. The Special Olympics is a one day event that allows kids to participate in physical activities and become the athlete they’ve always dreamed of, which is exciting for special needs children but is quite limited. Unified sports is different in that it’s an entire season comprised of teams of special education students that then have the chance to represent the school in competition like every other organized high school sport. “In this case we have our special education students and mainstream students participate together on a team against other schools who also have unified teams,” Steve said. “Freedom was the originator in Northern California.” Steve was also able to coax the Liberty and Heritage athletic directors into joining the league the first year since they were in the same district. The second year he added Antioch, Deer Valley, and Pittsburg.
In order to make unified sports successful in his school Steve knew that he first had to guarantee a student interest. So he approached his mainstream students’ athletics council, comprised of all of the team captains, and presented the idea. “I was interested to see what their response would be,” Steve said. “It was overwhelmingly that everyone wanted to do it. I wasn’t expecting that kind of reaction.” He thought more about it and realized that he was asking the right question but to the wrong audience, so he went to the life skills students and asked which sport they would want to participate in if given the opportunity. The unanimous desire was basketball. “I went back to our two representatives for basketball and relayed the great news, which they were truly excited about,” Steve said. “So basketball became our first sport, and it takes place in the spring.”
With the traditional basketball season occurring in the winter, Steve selected to run the unified sport in the spring to give the mainstream basketball athletes the chance to participate if they so desired. “It wasn’t to present a competitive advantage,” Steve said. “I wanted them to compete because our basketball athletes are relatively popular on campus, and I thought that if they joined the team, it had the potential to change the culture at our school.” Steve figured that if the student body came to watch the games and saw the athletes interacting with the life skills students, they might do so as well, which is exactly what happened.
The first unified basketball game packed the gym like it was a playoff game. Everyone wanted to see what it was all about. “The first basket, which was made by one of our life skills students, created a roar that would rival any important basketball game.” The second basket was made by a Heritage student and the cheers were equally as boisterous. “The crowd was celebrating the fun that was being had on the court. That was so transformative.” The following day on campus the life skills student athletes walked around receiving high-fives from classmates that they’d never even interacted with previously. The stereotypes of what it means to be different began to disappear. The revolution wasn’t solely taking place on Freedom’s campus. Antioch High School Special Education Teacher, Andy Lemos, said that he witnessed random acts of kindness towards his students. Mainstream football players were sitting next to special education students during rallies and helping them through the lunch crowd on their own volition, which he and others at that location have attributed to the adaptation of the unified sports program.
Not only were the students grateful, but so were the parents. Mainstream students’ parents watched their sons and daughters become leaders before their eyes, and life skills students’ parents were appreciative that someone was welcoming their children and providing such an opportunity. “They got to represent their school in uniform for the first time,” Steve said. “Why shouldn’t they? They’re students just like everybody else.”
After the season came to a close it was clear to Steve that he needed to make sure there were additional seasons throughout the school year. His plan was to roll out one new sport per year, so last year they started a bowling league, and this October they began soccer. Steve realizes that the success of his school’s unified sports is hugely due in part to the support he received throughout the process. “I’ve always said that I’ve been very fortunate to be surrounded by the professionals that I am, including the students,” Steve said. “My leadership style is if it takes coordination, to go ahead and do it, and if things are moving along, to clear any obstacles and let the people do what they can do.” That was his approach to the implementation of unified sports, and it has created a tremendous momentum. Steve has spoken at the state level about the topic twice, and now other schools in the area are joining the movement. “I think someday we may be as big as what’s happening on the east coast. It’s been really exciting to be a part of, creating a welcoming environment that everyone wants to join in on.”
So what does the future hold for unified sports? Steve has plans to add on to Freedom’s recent success. “If we need to create more sports, we should create more,” Steve said. Currently they are in the early stages of putting together a volleyball team to complement the basketball season. At the state level, the California Interscholastic Federation is opening a unified division of track and field for the first time. “I know our track coach has always been interested, so I think I’m going to give him the green light.”
If you haven’t attended a unified sporting event, Steve says you need to prepare yourself to see the true spirit of athletics. “High school sports are about getting students together to build positive relationships and have fun,” Steve said. “Sometimes in our society, the focus is much more on the outcome of winning above everything else.” Many times participants lose sight of the important character development that athletics can bring, but unified sports has been a breath of fresh air for the coaches as well as the entire school. “We realize that we need to celebrate the little things that will stay with us forever because these are the memories that will remain for a lifetime.”