Rutland Special Olympians go for gold.

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 6/2/10.] On June 4, more than 30 students from Rutland Public Schools traveled to the University of Vermont in Burlington to compete in the Vermont Special Olympics 2010 Summer Games. From the opening ceremonies, the Rutland delegation seemed poised to dominate the day – even the recitation of the Athlete’s Oath was led by RHS senior Derek Jackson.

The students are part of Rutland Public Schools’ Unified Sports Program – a registered program of Special Olympics International, which pairs students with intellectual disabilities (athletes) with students without intellectual disabilities (partners) on sports teams for training competition. With a motto of “On the field we’re teammates, off the field we’re friends,” the goal of Unified Sports is to bring people together and in doing so, shatter stereotypes about intellectual disability.

The event of the day was bocce. As part of the requirement to qualify for the Vermont Games, athletes and partners had been training twice a day for eight weeks. Those practices varied in both location and surface. Rutland’s Italian-American Club on Grove Street had generously donated time on their three slate courts. Occasionally, rain kept the teams indoors, where they practiced strategy and control on the decidedly slower carpeted classroom surface.

However, when they arrived at UVM, they learned that they would be playing on grass courts. Undeterred, the athletes took some practice rounds on one of the open courts where they got acquainted with the new surface. The practice paid off; the Rutland teams walked with a gold and a bronze medal as well as a fourth-place ribbon.

While awards are always a big thrill, Rutland High Unified Sports coach Carolyn Ravenna noted that simply being there is reward enough.

“Getting a ribbon or a medal doesn’t matter,” she said, “They’re so happy just to get up there and perform.”

Indeed, athlete Nick Woodward echoed Ravenna’s sentiment, saying, “Getting a chance to perform is the best part.”

That’s not to say there isn’t a healthy amount of competition. “It can be surprisingly competitive,” said Ravenna, who added that good sportsmanship always triumphs. Teams often cheer for each other and commend opponents for especially good shots.

Off the field, Ravenna is a school-to-work transition specialist in RHS’ special education department, where she works with students, helping them to develop independent living skills and explore career opportunities – preparing them for life in the real world.

Ravenna has been coaching Unified Sports for more than 10 years. She was quick to acknowledge the coaching support she gets from dedicated paraeduactors like Sherry Greeno and Cherie Smith. She also gave noted the hard work put in by intermediate and middle school coach Keith Page, who coached 26 of the students who competed in this year’s Summer Games.

In the classroom, she sees Unified Sports as being an integral part of her students’ growth and development.

“It builds confidence, and gives them a sense of accomplishment and worth.”

Competing at the state level also builds a greater sense of community. Athletes are able to meet other like themselves from around the state.

“They go away united,” said Ravenna.

Back at school, that unity is very real. Special education students are very much part of the community, and Unified Sports has done a great deal to foster that fact. Non-disabled students are aware of the program and often observe or participate in practices.

Next year, Unified Sports will be part of the high school’s athletic department. Both athletes and partners will be able to receive physical education credit for participating. As always, the cost for competition in the Vermont Special Olympics is part of the RPS athletic budget; no cost is passed on to the students. In addition to bocce, next year’s program will offer bowling, soccer and possibly basketball.

True to the program’s motto, athletes and partners are friends on and off the field. In the hallways, medals and ribbons are proudly worn by both. Ravenna has found that participation in Unified Sports often leads to further involvement for non-disabled students.

“It’s contagious,” she said, adding that some students even go on to pursue careers in special education. More importantly, however, Ravenna acknowledged the friendships that are forged through the program.

“It breaks down barriers, and that’s the real goal.”

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