Joining Forces

The UM Special Olympics Club’s Unified Basketball Team competes with plenty of skill and fun.

By Maya Bell
UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (January 11, 2014) — When University of Miami junior Ross Ito signed up for the first UM Special Olympics basketball team composed of players with and without disabilities, the psychology major figured they “would just shoot some hoops and have some fun.”

But the co-chair of the new UM Special Olympics club quickly learned his teammates from Our Pride Academy (OPA) in Kendall, which nurtures students with development disabilities, were serious about competing. They certainly like to have fun, but they are athletes in every sense of the word.

“At practice, we do suicide drills, shooting drills, defensive drills, set plays,’’ Ito said. “It’s a real workout and the teams are the real deal.”

So real that both the University’s Division 4 and more skilled Division 3 unified teams took first place at the regional Special Olympics Florida basketball games at UM’s Wellness Center on Saturday, January 11, after winning last month’s local games at the Coral Gables War Memorial Youth Center.

Held for the first time at UM, the Special Olympics regional games, which are actively recruiting Fans in the Stands and other volunteers, underscore the University’s rapidly growing commitment to the Special Olympics in general, and the movement toward unified sports in particular.

Both blossomed on campus at last year’s annual Fun Day, when UM students hosted local residents with disabilities for a day of fun. That’s when Ito met Lisa Cameron, a junior majoring in neuroscience and mathematics who, long inspired by the Special Olympics message of inclusion, was determined to launch the U’s Special Olympics club.

She succeeded and passed the leadership reigns to Ito and her former roommate Natalie Falcon, who each had life-changing experiences while at their respective high schools—Ito in Hawaii and Falcon in South Florida—working at camps for kids with disabilities.

“It ended up being the most valuable week of my life,’’ remembers Falcon, a junior majoring in microbiology and immunology. “I was able to teach one of my little buddies to swim and seeing the smile on his face was priceless.’’

As co-chairs of UM Special Olympics, Falcon and Ito held the club’s first meeting this past September, setting the establishment of the unified basketball team—currently the Special Olympics most popular unified sport—as their top priority because they believe in the principle behind unified teams: Training and playing together builds friendships and understanding, and dispels preconceptions and stereotypes.

“Unified sports is the future of the Special Olympics because it meets the goal of inclusion and acceptance like nothing else,” said Falcon, who along with Ito and other club members hopes to establish unified soccer, track and field and swimming teams at UM as well. “From the very first practice, you could tell a connection was forming. There was a lot of chemistry. It was very cool to watch.”

Club members also delighted in watching the prophetic words of Danny Cartaya, OPA’s athletic director and the unified teams’ coach, ring true. He began the first practice by giving UM players a few reminders about their OPA teammates.

“Remember, you have many more similarities than differences,” Cartaya told them. “They are all individuals. Don’t treat them differently; don’t baby them. If you have an opportunity to make a shot, take it. If you have an opportunity to steal the ball, steal it. That’s how they’ll get better—by you giving them your best.”

“Ross
Ross Ito, right, co-chair of the new UM Special Olympics club, confers with the unified team's top scorer, OPA's Jonathan Trujillo.

Ito can laugh about those words now, knowing how much the reverse is true, too. Often outscored and out-dribbled by his OPA teammates, he knows they’ve made him a better player. In fact, the leading scorer on the unified team is OPA’s Jonathan Trujillo.

“This is a real competitive but teamwork-oriented team,” he said. “They are not selfish and they like to see each other succeed. They are the picture of good sportsmanship.”

Adds Cartaya, “OPA athletes have been so excited about wearing UM colors, but even more excited about the friendships they are forming.”

Opening ceremonies for the Special Olympics area basketball games will begin at 8:45 a.m. and feature the Miami Heat dancers and Burnie, the Heat mascot. In addition to the unified team competitions, the games will include individual basketball skills, team skills, 3 vs. 3, and traditional Special Olympics team competitions.

To volunteer, please sign up online. For more information call Special Olympics Florida – Miami-Dade County at 305-406-9467.

Maya Bell can be reached at 305-284-7972.


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Coach Danny Cartaya, in white, rallies the unified team during the local competition at the War Memorial Youth Center.

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