When you think about Special Olympics, the first thing you think about is usually all of the athletes competing in their respective sports. One aspect of competition that is still fairly new, but gaining a lot of momentum is Unified Sports. At the Special Olympics Tennessee State Basketball Tournament this past weekend, both sides were put on full display.
Grace Neal is a senior athlete from West Ridge in Hawkins & Sullivan County – Area 32. Ashton Waller is a senior Unified Partner who is also from West Ridge, and together they helped West Ridge put forth a very strong showing at the state tournament despite the five-hour drive down to Lipscomb University.
Neal didn’t start playing organized basketball until two years ago, but despite that, she says she “loves it [basketball] so much.”
“No words can express how I feel about basketball, I just enjoy it so much," said Neal.
That much is apparent out there on the court as well in the way she plays.
“There have been some ups and downs,” Neal said about her time playing basketball at West Ridge. But with her being named MVP of the team last year in her first season and then helping her team make it to Lipscomb, the highs have been pretty high.
Ashton Waller is one of the Unified Partners. In Unified Sports, teams are made up of people of similar age and ability, which makes practices more fun and games more challenging and exciting for all. Waller had a lot of great things to say about his experience as a unified partner.
“It was easy,” Waller said of the regional tournament held in East Tennessee that led to West Ridge qualifying for the state tournament. “They simplified everything for us so we could just play basketball and have fun, and everybody had a good time.”
Waller had a lot more good things to say about being a Unified Partner and how great his experiences have been in his time participating.
“Being a Unified Partner, it’s all about trying to give back, trying to help the athletes,” Waller said. “This whole system works really well to support the athletes and grow better in not just sports but in the real world.”
“Their personality shines more thanks to Unified Sports,” Waller continued. “I have a friend on the team that wouldn’t talk to anyone last year, and after playing for an entire year he is now the most outspoken person I know."
“It makes me happy,” Waller said, as a smile he was trying so hard to hold back finally took over his face. “It’s heartwarming.”
Having talked to more Unified Partners that aren’t just Ashton Waller, they all tend to say the same thing. Once they are involved, they love every moment of it.
“One of the best moments was when we beat Volunteer,” Waller added. “Just seeing everybody’s face light up with complete joy when everybody got their medals. It was a great day."
Waller’s experience definitely isn’t alone. Being a Unified Partner brings so much joy to not just the person volunteering, but also to the athletes themselves.
Learn more about Unified Sports and find a program near you: Click here.