Unified Sports at Skyline High School

Emily Nelson, front with blonde hair, and Gabriella Labrada both sought new opportunities with Unified Sports at Skyline High School. However, they had to join the AIA badminton team because a Unified program hadn’t yet been developed. Even then, they felt welcome. 

Skyline High School’s new Unified Sports team will allow students with intellectual disabilities to compete alongside and in front of their peers. 

Unified Sports is a program that is a part of the Special Olympics that focuses on social inclusion. This is done by joining those with intellectual disabilities and those without on the same team. They play together on the same field with the same goal.

For Skyline, this is its first year being a part of the Unified Sports program in Arizona. Before the program, students with intellectual disabilities could only participate in sports by playing them in their physical education classes. Those two classes were focused on getting the students involved and teaching them different skills and sports. 

With Skyline now a part of Unified Sports, those physical education classes have evolved to help prepare the students for competing in games against other schools. 

The higher-level class at Skyline has 12 students with intellectual disabilities and 12 partners all practicing basketball, preparing for games later this year at the AIA level, competing against unified teams from other schools. Skyline’s lower-level class has 20 students with intellectual disabilities that are doing the same, in preparation for the area games. 

With the program being new at Skyline, getting more students involved is a key area of focus moving forward for athletic director Phil Wail. 

Due to COVID-19, Skyline was unable to tell students about the program until after school had already started. With games approaching Wail has a plan to get the program more visibility.

“A lot of the games that take place between our schools will be done during the school day,” Wail said. “When we have one of those [games] at our school . . . since it’s during the day, for our P.E. classes that are going on that would be great for them to be in the stands . . . to watch and cheer what’s going on.” 

With fans in the stands, these students are able to feel like they are competing and fighting for their school. The students are able to show off their competitive nature that many do not realize is there. 

“The unified kids, they love the idea of competing, competition, because they want to be a part of a team,” said physical education teacher Angelo Paffumi. “They just keep asking about ‘Where’s our uniforms? Are we gonna get uniforms?’ They just want to be a part of that, because when you’re a part of a team you’re a part of the school.”

This feeling of inclusion is what Unified Sports is all about. It brings students together to make an impact in each other’s lives. 

Senior Emily Nelson and junior Gabriella Labrada weren’t able to take part in Unified badminton because the team was not formed in time for the fall season. So they joined the regular team and played in exhibition matches that didn’t count toward the team’s ranking. 

Nelson is a swimmer by trade and has been swimming outside of Skyline for the past seven years. She has gone from being a part of that team, to leading her young squad. 

Going into her senior year of high school she wanted to try something different and joined the badminton team. This new experience for Nelson helped tap into a side of her that she normally doesn’t show. 

“Me, I’m not really competitive, but I got to experience the competitiveness in the games, but I also got to make friends,” Nelson said. 

In Labrada’s case, she was approached by one of the assistant coaches on the badminton team. After having that conversation, Labrada decided that she would come out of her shell and join the team.

However, with both girls now on the team, adversity began to rear its ugly head. Some coaches from other high schools began to take issue with Nelson and Labrada playing. Coaches would ask why the girls were not in Unified and why they are playing on the AIA team. Skyline badminton coach Stephanie Poppert explained that Skyline did not have a Unified badminton team for them to play on.

Even though some of the coaches from other schools were not thrilled to have Nelson and Labrada on Skyline’s team, the girls from the other schools made Poppert proud. 

“All of the girls were great,” Poppert said. “No matter how anxious their coaches were or how enthusiastic their coaches were, the girls all took it in stride from all different schools.”

The impact Unified Sports have had has been profound. By joining up with students with intellectual disabilities, their peers are now able to look at difficulties they have had in a new light. This new perspective allows them to better be able to focus in school. 

This new understanding from those students has allowed new partnerships to grow in the higher-level class. On a day where the class took a break from basketball to play kickball the students took advantage to have fun. 

Paffumi, with a smile from ear to ear, described how the students were joking around, picking each other up and laughing together. 

In Skyline’s first year of Unified Sports, the benefits and impact are already having an effect on the students involved. Step by step Wail and Paffumi are building a program based on unifying the school.

“To me it’s all about the relationships, the communication, the acceptance, and coming together as one unit for the school,” Paffumi said. 

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