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IOWA Magazine | June 2019
Better Together: Hawkeyes and Special Olympics Athletes
UI students and Special Olympics athletes play side-by-side in the Unified Sports program.
Special Olympics Basketball PHOTO: JUSTIN TORNER/UI OFFICE OF STRATEGIC COMMUNICATION University of Iowa students and Special Olympics athletes play basketball inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena as part of the university’s Unified Sports program.

Carver-Hawkeye Arena erupted in applause this past spring after a buzzer beater that was celebrated by both teams. Special Olympics athlete Hayli Schumacher made her first basket of the game in the final moments of the UI's Unified Sports Intramural Basketball Championship. Though her team lost, Schumacher beamed and received congratulatory high-fives and hugs from both squads.

The heartwarming moment encapsulated the mission of UI Recreational Services' Unified Sports program: to create opportunities for Special Olympics athletes and UI students to interact and establish friendships through sports. "It allows for serious growth for both sets of people," says Jaison Marks (17BS, 17BSE), a graduate student who has participated in every season of Unified Sports at Iowa. "Everyone gets better at communicating and interacting with others."

"Without the partners and the University of Iowa, this wouldn't be possible. It's a huge blessing to me and all of the athletes." - Special Olympics athlete Kyle Luck

The UI launched the state's first university-based Unified Sports intramural program in fall 2017 by pairing students with Special Olympics athletes on four flag football teams. In response to the program's popularity, the UI added basketball in winter 2017 and volleyball in fall 2018. Special Olympics athletes complete drills to determine their skill levels and ensure competitive balance among the teams, and partners attend a meeting on how to communicate and interact with the athletes.

Every team plays three regular season games and a semifinal, with winners advancing to the UI Unified Sports championship. This year, the UI Unified Sports basketball program also was one of 12 chosen to compete in the NIRSA National Basketball Championships in Wichita, Kansas.

Throughout the seasons, lasting friendships develop. Marks shoots hoops outside of practice at the Field House with Special Olympics athlete Kyle Luck, and the pair were part of the team representing Iowa at the national tournament. "Without the partners and the University of Iowa, this wouldn't be possible," says Luck. "It's a huge blessing to me and all of the athletes."

Soon after Schumacher's basket at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, participants stood together proudly at midcourt for a photo—completing another season as friends and teammates. UI student Cassidy Henry, a partner and coach since the beginning, relishes in these moments of unity. "We don't look at disability," she says. "We look at everyone's capabilities, and we work on those."

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