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Utah high school students team up with disabled peers

MIDVALE — Holly Batchlor said she feels like a celebrity on the soccer field.

"I kicked the ball. It hit the net, and it feels, like, wow," she said. "I wanna win so bad."

And while the 17-year-old Bingham High School student was eager for her team to score, she happily cheered for opposing teams and every goal made on either side.

"It makes you think about what is most important in sports," said Batchlor's her coach, Jared Denslow, a special education teacher at Bingham High. "It's about experiencing it together and playing as a team."

The Bingham Miners were one of 12 co-ed teams made up of approximately 144 students with and without intellectual disabilities from Utah high schools that played for trophies and bragging rights Saturday as part of the first-ever Unified Sports soccer tournament in Utah.

Special Olympics Utah and the Utah High School Activities Association partnered to initiate the program in Utah this year, assisting schools in ensuring that students with disabilities have access to extracurricular sports — a recommendation from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights in January 2013.

Intellectually disabled students are apparently five times as likely to be employed after high school if they have actively participated in Special Olympics activities, said Special Olympics CEO Amy Hansen, who called it a "landmark opportunity" for the students. She said the disabled participants also live an average of five years longer when they've had the interactive experience.

"It helps them learn life skills that empower them throughout their lives," Hansen said.

Teams were able to have five players on the field at all times — three intellectually disabled students and two without intellectual disabilities, called partners. The partners helped coach their peers through the season, including in-school practices, which is where Steve Folks actually learned the game.

"I think I'm kind of liking soccer now," the 17-year-old Spanish Fork High School student said Saturday.

Before this soccer season, Folks said he was partial to football and baseball.

"He really improved a lot," said Folks' teammate and peer mentor, Brittany Beck.

Beck, 17, serves as a tutor for students with special needs and plans to keep that focus in her future career.

"I just love being with them," she said. "It makes me feel good when they are happy."

Beck said her intellectually challenged teammates are not self-conscious about their conditions, which are not apparent upon meeting them. They just love being involved and cheer for everyone, she said.

"The hope is that we break down stereotypes and create friends," Hansen said. "We want to create schools that are tolerant, accepting and better places for all students."

Unified Sports is a registered program of Special Olympics International and was made possible in Utah with operating funds from the local chapter, as well as a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Hansen said she hopes the program will continue in the future.

Currently, Unified Soccer and Unified Track and Field are offered to Utah high school students in participating Utah High School Activities Association member schools.

In its inaugural year, Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind and Skyline, Bingham, Wasatch, Hillcrest, Grantsville, Mountain Crest, Lone Peak, Brighton, Alta, Spanish Fork, Jordan and Sky View high schools participated in the event. Students already on school teams were not eligible to play.

Regular-season games were held leading up to Saturday's tournament. Teams were separated into three divisions, based on ability levels to ensure fair play and good competition.

And as the combined team from Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind and Skyline High School claimed the first-place trophy, the audience cheered them on, albeit silently, twisting their hands in the air in the American Sign Language action exhibiting applause.

"It's so rewarding," Denslow said. "These are students who wanted to play. They may not have known very well how, but the kids without disabilities will tell you that they're the ones who learned the most."

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