By JEN CARDINES
The Southington High School outdoor track was transformed into an Olympic stadium last Thursday when 200 students from 11 schools participated in the Special Olympics statewide track and field event.
Everyone fell silent as SHS athlete Andrew Gallagher performed the national anthem on his electric guitar. They all cheered as a torch was carried to light the cauldron and as each team was called onto the field for recognition. Then, opening ceremonies were concluded by remarks from Unified Sports director George Synnott and assistant director Bob Hale.
It was truly an Olympic experience.
Unified Sports, which started in Connecticut, is a combination of mainstream students (partners) and special education students (athletes) who form bonds and friendships. It is a Special Olympics affiliate that runs through the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC). The program has more than 5,000 athletes and partners from 260 schools throughout the state.
Southington had 38 athletes participate last week and 150 student volunteers went to cheer on the teams and help run the events. Head coach Marguerite Maddalena said that the entire outdoor track team was excited to help with the event and work with the Unified athletes.
Participants came from Berlin High School, Bristol Central, Bristol Eastern, Valley Regional High School (Deep River), Farmington High School, Avon High School, Newington High School, Shelton High School, Simsbury High School, and Crosby High School (Waterbury). They competed in relays, standing long jump, running long jump, shot put, turbo javelin, and tennis ball throws.
Southington’s central location in the state makes it the perfect spot to host the event each year. Athletic director Greg Ferry said he hopes to be the permanent host for future Unified Sports track and field events.
“It’s my favorite event of the year,” he said. “It’s a great way to showcase all of these student athletes.”
But it’s not just athletics that Unified Sports brings to SHS. Maddalena said the program has effected the whole school climate and beyond.
“It’s been such a ripple effect,” she said. “It’s rippled out to so many others outside of Southington.”
Just a few months ago, SHS was named a Special Olympics Unified Champion banner school for their inclusive practices. A Banner Unified Champion school must have a Unified Sports program with inclusive youth leadership and school-wide engagement. The program must also demonstrate that they are self-sustainable in their activities.
Maddalena said the athletes participate in school-wide pep rallies, play in the blue and white halftime games, and are self supporting, thanks to Southington UNICO, which pays for everything.
Maddalena is retiring this June after 38 years of teaching physical education and health in Southington schools. When Unified Sports was implemented in the town’s athletics nine years ago, she jumped at the opportunity to coach the students.
“Back then it was one sport, one coach, and one game,” Maddalena said about the program’s inaugural season. At that time, basketball was the only sport available for the Unified athletes. Today, soccer, basketball, track, and bowling are all offered to keep the program running year-round, and there are two assistant coaches, Andrew Larkin and Denise Ingriselli.
Though she is retiring from her teaching career, Maddalena said she has full intentions to come back in the fall to coach.
“There’s no way I could give this up. We are so proud of this program,” she said, recalling many former students who flourished through Unified Sports.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Jen Cardines, email her at JCardines@SouthingtonObserver.com.
Photos by BRIAN JENNINGS