Guilderland and Colonie Central high schools are part of a pilot sports program that, if successful, will allow athletes with and without developmental difficulties across New York to compete on the same team.
Twelve Section II schools are participating in Unified Sports, a program jointly run by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association and Special Olympics. Each school – Colonie, Guilderland, Columbia, Shenendehowa, Mohonasen, Averill Park, Ballston Spa, Saratoga Springs, Glens Falls, Mechanicville, Queensbury and Schenectady – is fielding a basketball team for the inaugural season, which lasts from May 5 through May 31.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Cheryl Nunamacher, a special education teacher at Colonie. “The kids are very excited about it. They don’t have many opportunities outside of the school day like this.”
“We were really, really excited to be part of this,” added Colette Gallagher, special education teacher and co-coach of the Unified Sports basketball team at Guilderland. “It’s an awesome opportunity, and it’s also something we want to see succeed.”
The Unified Sports basketball games are played under normal rules for the sport, including a three-point shot. At least three athletes with developmental difficulties must be on the court at all times, with a maximum of two partners – athletes without developmental difficulties – to assist.
“The idea is a lot of these athletes are able to compete at a level where if you’re in the audience, you won’t be able to tell the difference,” said Gallagher. “We’re trying to blur the lines.”
Timothy Fitzsimmons is a prime example of what Gallagher is hoping the Unified Sports program will do. The 18-year-old Colonie Central High School student suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2007 that has affected his memory and took away the use of his left arm, but he can shoot outside jump shots well with his right hand.
“It feels amazing to be out there sweating my guts out,” said Fitzsimmons. “It’s different from playing (street) football.”
“Tim’s a very good shooter,” said Colonie coach Andy Monin. “The biggest thing for him is to get the ball up to his hand to shoot. Defenses may give him some trouble, but we have some great partners to help him (on the floor).”
Victor and Jason, both 15-year-old Guilderland High School students with developmental difficulties, said they are looking forward to representing their school in a team sport for the first time.
“It’s been nice shooting the basket(ball)s around,” said Victor.
“It doesn’t really matter if we’re the best team,” added Jason. “I just want to have fun and congratulate any team that’s the best.”
The main requirement for the partner athletes was they couldn’t have played for their schools’ varsity basketball teams. As a result, the partner athletes are a mix of boys and girls who only play the sport on a casual or recreational basis.
“This is considered to be a sport, so it can’t be an athlete who already played varsity basketball this season,” said Gallagher.
Mark Fyvie, a Guilderland junior, said he has played basketball since third grade, but this experience is as rewarding as any he’s experienced.
“I see them having a lot of fun and wanting to play, and I want the to have fun and play as much as possible,” said Fyvie.
Allyson Johnson, a Colonie senior partner athlete, is learning the sport alongside the athletes she’s working with.
“It was a little difficult learning all the rules of basketball, and being short doesn’t help,” said Johnson, who played softball one year ago.
Still, Johnson said she’s having as much fun as the athletes she’s partnered with.
“I love working with them. They make me laugh, and we have a great time. They just love being out here,” said Johnson.
“We have a very nice community here,” said Nunamacher. “It was easy to get kids to sign up to help us.”
The season lasts seven games for each team, with the final game taking place during a day-long event May 31 at the Glens Falls Civic Center – the site of the NYSPHSAA boys basketball championships. Besides the games that day, there will be a skills challenge and a “polar plunge” featuring a pool set up in the parking lot.
Colonie’s Youth Advocacy Team was hard at work promoting the Unified Sports basketball team’s first home game on May 5. Abby Holt, a senior at the high school, said she was hoping for a big crowd for opening day.
“A lot of people are really excited about it,” said Holt. “The nice thing about this school is we’re always willing to accept new things and to jump in and help out.”
To help set the mood, Holt said the Youth Advocacy Team was working on getting a pep band to play in the stands.
“My boyfriend, Tristen Jarvis, he plays bass guitar and is very active in the school community. So, he’s really into this,” said Holt.
Gallagher said the hope she has for the pilot program is that it grows beyond one sport and one section of the state.
“We want this to spread to other sports so these athletes have more sports to play,” said Gallagher.
“It should be a lot of fun,” added Monin. “I don’t know if we’ll win a game, but it’s not about that. It’s about having fun.”