Partnering up with Unified

The Unified team prepares for a game in the Heritage gym.

The coaches teach them the game. The fans cheer them on. The players give it their all. And the partners — the Heritage students on the court beside their HHS PACE teammates — make Unified Eagles a positive and exciting experience for everyone involved.

As Special Olympics Colorado describes, Unified partners become teammates and friends with the athletes, “promoting physical health and bringing people together.” Heritage partners have fully embraced this mission.

“There is no other sport with such enthusiasm and great sportsmanship,” says Rachel Street ’13, one of a handful of seniors who have played on the Unified team for four seasons.

Veteran player Rachel Lukowicz ’13 agrees, recalling a favorite event that epitomizes the level of sportsmanship Unified entails.

“There was one game when the other team didn’t have enough partners, and so a handful of us went and played for the other team. It was just so much fun because everyone was so cool and laid back about it!” she shares. “Sportsmanship at its finest.”

The team has practices on Tuesdays and games on Wednesdays, usually at Heritage, throughout January and February. The games are open to the public and both the players and the partners appreciate enthusiastic audiences.

This year, the team is massive. Almost 100 partners support about 15 players. This has both benefits and drawbacks.

“A big issue the team faces is getting to know the players and getting the players to recognize you,” says Shelly Youngkin ’13, who has also been a partner since her freshman year. “Getting one-on-one time with a player is very challenging, but you just have to say ‘Hi’ and talk to them every chance you get until the both of you know each other well.”

Lukowicz enjoys the sense of community that comes from such a big team.

“Because there are so many partners, we switch off during the game on who is on the court, but we all practice together,” she says. “Each partner can usually only go in for three or four minutes, but if you’re not on the court we are always cheering and having fun in the stands.”

Street agrees, adding, “Even if the players don’t know all of us by name, they still feel the support of a huge team!”

All of the returning seniors are glad they had the opportunity to play year after year, citing Unified as a highlight of their high school experiences.

“The attitude of the team is what brought me back every year,” says Youngkin. “Every player there wants to be there and wants to play basketball and that is such a positive environment to be around. The players are some of the happiest people I know. It’s so inspiring to be around those players because their happiness can be from something as simple as a basket.”

“I truly believe it’s the most beneficial and joyous thing anyone can be a part of in high school,” says Jamon Armitstead ’13. “It’s really that powerful of an experience, every single game.”

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