It was a winning combination when NIU students partnered with Special Olympics athletes from Opportunity House of Sycamore for a National Intramural and Recreation Sports Association (NIRSA) soccer tournament. Playing as the NIU Unified team, the athletes took first place in the Unified Division Spring Soccer Championship held at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign on Saturday, April 13.
“Opportunities like this are so important,” said Laura Kucik, assistant director of NIU Competitive Sports. “These events can be used as teaching methods; just because someone is different does not mean they aren’t capable. We can all interact, have fun and work together as a team.”
Unified Sports is an inclusive sports program that unites people with intellectual disabilities (athletes) and those without intellectual disabilities (partners) for training and competition.
This is the first time NIU Recreation Wellness and Opportunity House have joined forces for the tournament.
“Events like this showcase what Special Olympics athletes are capable of doing when given the opportunity,” Opportunity House coach, Marc Johnson, said. “I know what our athletes are capable of, but being able to show those skills to others is truly amazing.”
Johnson said his athletes take great pride in their skills, and the tournament provided a platform to demonstrate those skills. In turn, NIU students benefit from being part of the team.
“I feel the NIU students gained a new respect for what our athletes are able to do on the athletic fields,” Johnson said. “I am hoping the experience opened their eyes to the world of Special Olympics and the positive benefits to athletes who participate.”
NIU student Brendan Lochbaum, a junior majoring in kinesiology, was part of the NIU Unified soccer team.
“Being part of the tournament gave us a chance to experience a whole new side of a sport we have been playing our whole lives,” Lochbaum said. “We learned a new set of leadership, team building and communication skills and gained a new understanding of how bonded the Special Olympics community is.”
It’s a win-win for all involved.
“NIU students gained insight and a better understanding of people with disabilities,” Kucik said. “I think they also gained a sense of respect for the athletes; they all celebrated together, and it really showcased humanity on a whole new level.”
“I am looking forward to what this partnership can lead to in the future,” Johnson said. “Both athletes of Opportunity House Athletics and NIU students can greatly benefit from this potential partnership.”