The Special Olympics Unified Sports program is growing, and those involved couldn’t be happier. The growth means more competition and more opportunities for players. Unified Sports pairs people with and without intellectual disabilities who are similar in age and ability on teams that train and compete together.

“When I started coaching Unified basketball seven years ago, we had 10, maybe 12 teams participating,” said Murray coach Jessie Agiriga. “To see this growth has been so fun because others are getting to experience how great the Unified program is.”

Murray was one of 78 teams participating in the Unified Sports state basketball tournament earlier this month at the University of Utah. The high school teams from across the state were split up into divisions where they competed for a title.

In 2012, Special Olympics and the Utah High School Activities Association formalized a partnership to bring Unified Sports to schools. This helped foster the movement, but the program has not experienced momentum like it’s experiencing right now. The high school boom is happening across soccer, basketball, swimming, and track and field — all sports sanctioned by the UHSAA.

“It’s been an incredible journey watching Unified Sports grow over the last five years. I am in awe of the support we have received and the lives we have been able to impact through inclusion,” said Courtnie Worthen, Special Olympics of Utah director of Unified Champion Schools .

Worthen said there are 120 schools in Utah that offer at least one Unified Champion Schools component and that the growth is occurring statewide.

“We are a small, rural school where our administration is 100% supportive and helps us with our track team,” said North Sanpete Unified coach Cami Christensen. “I didn’t know anything about track when I started coaching, but now hearing our athletes tell me, ‘They feel like they are a part of something,’ I’m so glad I did this and that it has all worked out.”

Looking at the growth of Unified Sports, much of the credit goes to the partnership Utah First Lady Abby Cox and her Show Up team forged with Special Olympics when they made Unified Sports one of the Show Up pillars.

“I believe that Unified Sports is part of the answer to the empathy crisis that our state and nation faces right now,” said Cox. “Having our youth play on the same team as someone that has a different story than them creates genuine friendships that increase the level of connection and compassion not only in their personal lives, but also in their schools, neighborhoods, and the community.

Utah First lLdy Abby Cox poses for a photo with high school-age Special Olympics Utah athletes as part of her Show Up initiative at the Utah state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. The Show Up initiative supports the growth of the Special Olympics Unified Sports program in Utah schools. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“When we introduce this program to community partners, school foundations and other supporters, they are quick to see the magic of the program and what it can offer. We are so grateful to those that have jumped in to sponsor teams across the state. This program is changing lives and our schools for the better.”

Unified Sports also exists at the collegiate and pro levels. Campuses across Utah are sporting teams, and the Real Salt Lake Unified team plays matches at America First Field while also traveling with Real Salt Lake for a couple of road matches each season.

The momentum has been fun to watch for those engaged over the years and for those new to Unified Sports. The state basketball tournament included teams competing in their first tournament and long-time teams like Murray.

“Our team is only about two months old,” said Olympus coach Luke Rowland. “I’ve coached a lot of teams over the years and this is the most fulfilling coaching job I’ve ever had. The kids are just so excited and this program is really amazing.”

Highland is another new basketball program, and one of the schools that brought more than one team to the basketball tournament.

“The tournaments are fun and my favorite part,” said Highland player Nora Cizik. “I am with friends I know and some new friends. It has been fun to learn a new sport that helps me run.”

Speaking of running, Cizik and many of the athletes won’t get much rest after wrapping up the basketball season with the track and field season beginning this week. Boston Iacobazzi, who manages the Unified Sports secondary school program, expects around 80 schools to participate in track and field this spring.

Basketball state division winners

Division 1: Spectrum 1

Division 2: Bountiful White

Division 3: Westlake

Division 4: Tooele Purple

Division 5: Skyview Gold

Division 6: Westlake Thunder

Division 7: Corner Canyon

Division 8: Woods Cross Wildcats Red

Division 9: Tooele White

Division 10: Salem Hills Gold

Division 11: Rams (Highland)