Scott Flickinger, the director of intramural sports, worked with students last spring to form a Unified Sports team, bringing together those with and without disabilities to play basketball — a small crew that has grown into the Cornell Special Olympics Club.
“We had no altered rules for Unified basketball. It was National Federal High School rules,” Flickinger said. “If you traveled, you traveled, if you double dribbled, you double dribbled, but at least you competed and did so on the same level as everybody else.”
The Special Olympics works to get everyone involved in sports regardless of their ability. Flickinger said he saw developing his Unified Sports team as an opportunity to foster an inclusive athletic environment at Cornell. Now, two semesters in, this club has bloomed with over 70 members, hosting community events and attending national Special Olympics competitions.
Kayla Simone ’24, president of Cornell Special Olympics, was preparing for her freshman year at Cornell when the Unified Sports team was just getting started. Simone said she was involved with similar organizations throughout high school but noticed that Cornell did not have an active Special Olympics Club –– and she wanted to change this.
Simone soon met Flickinger and the students who had helped form the Unified Sports basketball team, and they worked together to grow the program through a Special Olympics Club. Since then, they have connected with leaders at Special Olympics New York who have helped them build the club to its current size, in addition to the athletes who are from the greater Ithaca area.
At their first meeting during the fall semester, many more students joined the club than Simone had originally expected. Simone said she found that many new members had experience working with Special Olympics or similar organizations in high school.
“I thought that was great because Special Olympics is such a large, nationally recognized organization, but it’s so great to see all the students come together from their different homes and different backgrounds and have the opportunity to unite over this special cause,” Simone said.
So far, all meetings and events for the club have been virtual. But this has not stopped Simone from making the most of her time with the athletes. Trying to do physical sports on Zoom is difficult, so she has been using their biweekly meetings to bond with the club members.
“The activities we do have aspects of teamwork and competition to have that sports idea behind it.” Simone said. “We’ve just been doing games a lot to be able to stay connected with each other and meet each other and form that relationship, so that when we can be in person we will already know who everyone is.”
Last week, Cornell Special Olympics participated in the Special Olympics National Virtual College Championship in collaboration with ESPN. From April 12 to the 16, each college’s Special Olympics team completed up to 15 challenges — competing in activities including karaoke, lip sync, a virtual race and a social distance parade.
“It was really cool to get involved with something on a national level compared to just having our regular weekly meetings,” Simone said.
Anne Norby, a Special Olympic athlete, was introduced to the Special Olympics club after being paired with Simon in Cornell Best Buddies, a nonprofit organization that works to build relationships between Cornell students and Ithacans with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“I really like just all of us working together with each other and getting support from the coaches and support through the students who help us athletes,” Norby said. “They’re a positive role model in our lives.”
When the club moves in person, Norby said she’s looking forward to skiing at Greek Peak and going swimming with other members. She said she’s grateful for the club’s community and the friends she has made along the way.
“I would encourage people to do it,” Norby said. “I think it’s great that it puts awareness out there and also people can just put the disability aside and see the person as they are.”
“That crew right now is freshmen, and they are amazing in terms of getting things organized and the follow through,” Flickinger said. “Just to imagine three more years of that with those individuals in the club is really, really encouraging.”
For Flickinger, hearing the stories of the athletes amplify and affirm this work. A parent of one of the Unified athletes told Flickinger that their son puts on his gear right away after coming home from school, sitting in their equipment for three hours out of excitement to play basketball.
“That to me is absolutely amazing,” Flickinger said. “It just shows the power that play and sports can have when you include everyone.”