Utah First Lady Abby Cox leads a parade of athletes. On Saturday, Special Olympics Utah hosted the largest unified sports event the state has seen as 25 teams competed in a basketball championship. (Emily Ashcraft)
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OGDEN — A unique basketball competition on Saturday brought together high school students of all skill levels who cheered on not only their team, but their opponents as well.
Students with mental and physical disabilities were visibly excited to play with their friends and smiled broadly as they ran through two rows of cheerleaders and mascots and watched other teams play basketball.
Weber State University hosted the largest Special Olympics Utah Unified Sports basketball tournament ever in Utah on Saturday. It involved 384 students from 25 different high schools who participated in teams, including special education students and their partners.
Mountain Crest Basketball Team Partner Hailey Bassett loves seeing everyone cheering for each other in Unified Sports and the unity it brings.
“It’s so much fun – when someone scores a basket, everyone cheers,” Bassett said during a panel discussion about the event.
She said the school participating in Unified Sports has helped people in her life skills class become more involved with the school; this year, the student government came and asked the team members to participate in an annual talent show.
First Lady Abby Cox spoke at the event associated with her “Show Up” initiative, which is working to grow Special Olympics events statewide. Cox said the initiative is all about making connections.
Cox listed four things she thinks everyone needs: identity, purpose, sense of community, and love.
“Every human gets those four things when they participate in unified sports,” Cox said.
Cox said the program creates an environment in schools where everyone can feel included and become a champion. She said it not only benefits the kids on the teams, but also all of their peers, as they learn what everyone is like and form lifelong friendships.
“They’ll have friendships, not just when they’re playing basketball together, but they’ll have friendships, friendships in the hallway. They’ll have friendships in the classroom. … They’ll have friendships everywhere they go, and they bond “, she said. .
Cox hopes to expand the program across the state and said it exceeded its goal for the year thanks to the educational foundations and private donors who helped build the program. She still hopes to involve 50 rural schools in the program.
“Collectively, we will ensure that every child in the State of Utah feels a sense of love, belonging and connection. This is what our world needs. This is what our state needs right now,” Cox said.
Scott Weaver, president and CEO of Special Olympics Utah, said that prior to the “Show Up” initiative, they had 20 high schools and five elementary schools in the program. Since Cox started the initiative, they’ve doubled that number and added two colleges.
Before the end of the school year, 105 additional elementary schools and four additional middle schools will participate in the program. This means that the organization will reach over 1,500 students with intellectual disabilities. However, Weaver said there is still a lot of growth that can happen.
“I’m asking you to join us in changing the game, making a difference in the lives of Utah students, and helping us introduce the Unified Schools of Champions strategy to anyone and everyone who wants to play,” he said. said Weaver.
Weaver said he was a unified partner 30 years ago, and his two closest friends today were two of his partners.
Carla Bedingfield, a coach with the program, said she enjoys watching the students build a team and make friends. She said that through the program, she realized she had more in common with the team members than differences.
“They taught me more about myself than I can teach them,” Bedingfield said.
She said she had a parent of one of her students who said her daughter had played on several teams at her high school, but the Unified Sports team was the first where she really felt she had a goal, and she’s more excited to talk about her games than she was before.
Jacey Freeman of Westlake said a girl from her Unified Sports team, Radaslava Papadopoulos – Radi to her friends – joined her group of friends and went to a school dance with them.
Freeman said she benefited from her participation in the program. A teacher asked her to join the team and she said it was a no-brainer she just joined.
“It’s changed everything in my life, like what I want to do after high school, which has completely changed because I’m involved in Unified Sports and I can see things I can do and things the community can. do to change things up just a little,” Freeman said.
She said her school as a whole has changed dramatically in the past few months since the creation of a unified sports team.
Weber CountyUtah K-12 EducationUtahSports