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Unified Kickball fosters community with Special Olympics athletes

Two players compete for the ball at a kickball game as a part of UNC’s Unified Sports kickball league. Photo courtesy of Johnny Andrews.

This semester, UNC Campus Recreation and Special Olympics North Carolina hosted a Unified Kickball League, an opportunity for Special Olympics athletes and UNC student volunteers to participate in intramural kickball games at Hooker Fields. 

“Kickball is a sport that we first offered back in 2016 or 2017,” said Tori Hooker, senior assistant director of sports programs at Campus Recreation. “I worked with the Special Olympics coordinator of Orange County to get it up and running, and we’ve been offering it ever since. It’s been something that’s very close to my heart, and I enjoy seeing it come to fruition.”

Unified Sports is a sports program at the University that serves to foster community between Special Olympics athletes and UNC students. Unified Kickball usually takes place in the spring, with a Unified Flag Football League in the fall. But due to COVID-19 concerns, the two sports switched semesters this year.

Participating Special Olympics athlete Nickalas Harris said he enjoys the opportunity to make friends, stay active and engage in sports, especially when physical disabilities make certain forms of exercise difficult.

“Kickball is the only outdoor sport that I really like,” Harris said. “It’s one I can do. My doctor says I can’t do tackle football because I have seizures, but with the Special Olympics, I can do kickball, track and basketball. The UNC volunteers and my teammates support me.” 

Besides the social atmosphere and community created by Unified Kickball, the sport also provides Special Olympics athletes with games every Thursday.

“This is a way for us to keep people engaged in sports, getting exercise and being healthy,” said Elise Tuzo, president of Special Olympics UNC-CH. “On each team, they have about half athletes and half UNC students, so they’re kind of working toward the same goal of being active and encouraging each other and feeling like a part of a team.”

Clare Feole, another participating Special Olympics athlete, said she appreciates the camaraderie and community of the program.

“I loved participating in Unified Sports, because being part of a community is more fun with everyone willing to cheer people on," she said. "My favorite part about it was being with my friends and being part of a community that was being so supportive to people.”

Hooker said she enjoys seeing people of different skill and ability levels coming together to have fun and compete in Unified Kickball.

“I think it has an impact on everyone involved, whether it’s UNC participants or Special Olympics athletes or even our student staff, and everyone is impacted in different ways,” Hooker said. “Sports is a way that we can break down barriers and work together to achieve common goals regardless of our experiences and the identities that we hold.”

The last game of the fall season was held on Thursday, Oct. 14. Special Olympics athletes and UNC students celebrated with snacks, ice cream and t-shirts to congratulate them for their progress. 

Next semester, Unified Sports will host intramural games of basketball and flag football.

Students interested in participating in Unified Sports or getting involved with Special Olympics can contact Special Olympics UNC-CH through their HeelLife page. |

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