Last week, almost 4,000 Oklahoma athletes traveled to Stillwater for the 2023 Special Olympics State Summer Games.
Oklahoma State University has served as host for the event for a long time, but this year’s games featured something different: A team of athletes and partners representing the university as OSU Unified.
Jennifer Jones, director of the OSU Center for Developmental Disabilities, said for athletes and their families the competition in the State Summer Games was the climax of a journey that began about a year ago.
“Having done Special Olympics for 21 years, Summer Games at OSU are my favorite three days of the year to be on campus," Jones said. "The air is lighter, there is so much joy amidst a lot of friendly, but fierce competition. The difference this year is that our OSU Unified athletes and partners felt so connected because they’ve had the opportunity to compete all year long. OSU feels like home and everyone loves to get to play big games on their home turf.”
The OSU Unified delegation included 12, two-person bocce teams (one Special Olympics athlete and one partner), two 3v3 basketball teams (each with three athletes and one partner) and four coaches.
In July, OSU became the Special Olympics Unified College Program in the state after broadening its partnership with Special Olympics Oklahoma. A collaboration between the OSU Department of Wellness and the Center for Developmental Disabilities launched unified intramural sports opportunities, allowing OSU students, faculty and staff to compete alongside Special Olympics athletes throughout the school year in bowling, bocce and cornhole tournaments, 6v6 volleyball, 5v5 flag football leagues and more.
Athlete interest was strong across the state and OSU students, staff and faculty joined as partners, Jones said. As well as participating in a number of intramural events, OSU Unified held monthly gatherings to build relationships.
Athlete Brandon Rhodes traveled from Ponca City, Oklahoma, to participate. Brandon’s mother, Janiece, said she has been amazed to see his growth and the connections he has formed.
“We started in November with volleyball, and since that time, he has become more confident," Janiece said."He has autism and he’s been speaking, having conversations. They treat him just like he’s one of their regular peers and that’s what is wonderful about it. When he first started, he was so into himself. He had a hard time communicating. He was frustrated. Over the past several months, he’s come out of his shell. He’s blossomed into a (wonderful) version of himself I didn’t know I was ever going to see.”
Athlete Abby Allison actively participated with OSU Unified during the school year. Abby’s mother, Kathy, said it’s been a great experience for Abby and her family.
“Because of this, she’s making friends with other people, not only with special needs," Kathy said. "The (OSU) students have been amazing. We’re seeing relationships develop that honestly, I had not expected. We’ve had so much support and encouragement for her. She feels like she’s part of a team and part of a greater community than before.”
The Allisons live in Stillwater have a strong connection to OSU. Katy, her husband and Abby's siblings are OSU alumni, and they are proud to be part of the Cowboy family.
“Seeing OSU do this is a real family thing for us,” Kathy said. "It means so much. When Abby sees anything OSU, she’s like mom, ‘OSU! Go Pokes!’”
Thanks to a special investment, OSU Unified is expected to grow and will continue in the fall with a full roster of intramural sports.
“We are so grateful to Chelsea Alexander and First Cowboy Darren Shrum for the funding provided by Chilly Cowboy that will allow us to continue to expand our programming,” Jones said.
Athlete and partner registration for fall events will open in mid-July.