Special Olympic athletes ‘inspire’ students with passion


Lori William, Special Olympic athlete, makes a goal attempt during her assessment. Photo by Jeanette Perry

Jeanette Perry

In Rio De Janeiro this past summer, the 4′ gymnast Simone Biles, the swimmer with five gold medals and one silver medal, got all the attention.

Tomorrow, the action will not be as fast, nor will the competition be as stiff. But it’s highly likely the passion the athletes exhibit will meet — or surpass — that of the Olympic athletes.

On the intramural fields at 6 p.m. the Unified Sports League will have its first game of the season.

Caleb Hannon, acting director of recreational sports and student wellness center, said this is the first time the university has participated in anything like this and also talked about the partnership between students and Special Olympic athletes.

“To my knowledge this is the first time that MSU has really partnered with the north Texas region Special Olympics,” Hannon said. “It’s going to be recreational sports where our students at MSU participate on the same team as Special Olympic athletes in our regions and they’ll be playing competitive sports such as soccer and basketball together.”

Mike Strickland, North Texas Area 9 director, knew this was something he wanted to do because he already has a vested interest in the university and after speaking to other regions he knew this was the time to get this underway.

“I knew this was something I wanted to do. I went to school here. I already had a kind of partnership going in some aspects, nothing like what we are about to see happen,” said Strickland, who has been involved with the Special Olympics program here in north Texas for the last seven years. “ I talked with one of our area directors in area 13 which is down near Austin, and they did something similar on a smaller scale.”

After Strickland received feedback he applied for a grant for the Unified Sports program.

“I wanted to get this going back in the fall and I submitted a grant to the Junior League of Wichita Falls for this program,” said Strickland. “We received it, we got the grant. I knew this was the time to do it. We had the funds. We had the partnership.”

“They are trying to push Unified Sports which is taking Special Olympic athletes and pairing them with with non-Special Olympic athletes and NIRSA which is obviously through the college, is taking MSU students and partnering them with up with Special Olympic athletes and actually playing sports through the intramural program.”

Hannon said the first sport they are planning on focusing on is soccer and after seeing the participation numbers they may add in new sports.

“We are very focused on getting soccer going, our outdoor soccer, on our new turf fields that we just had built,” Hannon said. “Until we see how the league goes and the participation rates that we get and really the outcomes we hope to have then we’ll know further if we’re going to do other sports.”

Oran Jordan, Special Olympics athlete says that he has played soccer before and he likes it.

“It’s good for me. I like it,” Jordan said.

Strickland is focused on having an entire year filled with Unified Sports and his goal is to have a team in all available intramural sports.

“We’re starting with soccer and then we’ll move on, hopefully in the December time frame to bowling, and then our goal is when school starts back up we’ll go to basketball and then hopefully later in the spring, tennis,” Strickland said. 

Participants do not have to have experience as an athlete in order to participate. The first skills assessment practice helps Unified Sports leaders determine how to place new volunteers.

“The wonderful thing about our Unified Sports is that we’ll take people who have never touched a soccer ball up to people who might have played semi-professional soccer,” Hannon said. “The reason we can do that is the beginning of every season we will have a skills assessment so we will place every single person that’s going to be playing in two or three drills and we will rank them according to their skills.”

Hannon said by doing this is allows himself, and the other people who are forming the teams place all skill levels across the different teams.

Hannon said, “That’s going to allow us to allow anybody at any skill level to participate as well as keep the games as can be with people of the same skill level being split up among different teams.”

Emily Perez, special education senior, has never participated in a program like this and decided to try it after the regular intramural program wasn’t as interesting to her.

“I wasn’t really feeling the intramurals that we have here on campus,” Perez said. “Doing this, I feel like it gives me a different aspect of competition, I mean, it’s not just about winning, it’s about playing and getting to know people and teamwork.”

The benefits of the Unified Sports League is different for both students and Special Olympic athletes. Special Olympic athletes enjoy being able to hang out with their peers and play an organized sport.

“The aspect of being able to hang out with their peers [what effect will this have for Special Olympic athletes?],” Strickland said. “ We will have some that are probably a lot older than these college students, but it still gives them an avenue to hang out with their peers and do things that their peers do.”

Hannon believes it is a combination of physical fitness that is needed daily and the diverse community and becoming more open minded is the benefit that this program has for students. 

“I think it’s going to hit their physical fitness needs for being active. Playing an hour game a day would be great for their physical needs,” Hannon said. “It’s going to allow them to see a diverse community around them and the people that they live with that they may not see at their normal classes or activities that they participate in and I hope that it’s going to allow them to have a more open mind about different people and different needs in the area and hopefully round out those stereotypes that we might have of others.”


Some Special Olympic athletes are just passionate about playing a sport. Sean McGrath, special olympic athlete said being a global messenger brought him to the sport.

”Being a global messenger and being passionate about it has brought me to the sport,” McGrath said. 

Student participant said their love of working in special education, was partly the drive to participate in Unified Sports.

“In high school I was really passionate about working with a class called ‘Exceptional Individuals’, so I worked with them and I did my senior project and everything on it,” Carolyn Sims, education senior, said. “When Caleb, the director, told me about it I just decided I should come out and support it.”

Zachary Alvarez, education freshman had also worked with special education kids in high school and has played soccer for many years.

“We worked with special ed kids all the time,” Alvarez said. “I’ve always loved soccer. I’ve played for 13 years so it’s just a good opportunity to volunteer and just have fun.”

Special Olympic athletes have a number of reasons for coming out to play as well.

Nathaniel Bennett, Special Olympic athlete said, “God. God wants me to.”

Rachel Carlile, Special Olympic athlete is excited about meet new friends,

“I get to meet new friends,” Carlile said. “I like doing sports.”

Some students are planning on being involved with Unified Sports for the entire year and are inspired by the drive of the Special Olympic athletes.

“People who are not as privileged as us, they just kind of inspire me. They just keep going no matter what,” Tiana Tubbs, sociology freshman, said. “I’m here for the rest of the year for USL so I’m going to be a part of the different sports, bowling, basketball and soccer for the fall.”