Mariner’s Seijin Dupuy drives the baseline with Kamiak’s Olivia Albright trailing during Thursday night’s Varsity Unified game at Kamiak High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Mariner’s Seijin Dupuy drives the baseline with Kamiak’s Olivia Albright trailing during Thursday night’s Varsity Unified game at Kamiak High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Unified sports teams growing in popularity

MUKILTEO — The latest chapter to the Kamiak-Mariner rivalry was a victory for everyone involved.

The schools’ Special Olympics unified basketball teams squared off for the first time ever last Thursday night in front of an electric Kamiak gym packed with fans, students, bands and cheerleaders from both sides. Kamiak won the game 43-34, but the event left both teams celebrating afterward with their respective student sections.

“I’m blown away speechless,” Kamiak coach Georgia McClaskey said of the event. “As a special education teacher, I always think about inclusion and how I can incorporate that in what I do. And being a part of this just showed how we’re one step closer toward that in Mukilteo. Bridging the two schools and just the energy — not for one, but for all — that’s kind of what this is all about.”

Special Olympics unified sports bring together athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to train and compete on the same co-ed team. In unified basketball, at least three special-education athletes must be on the court at all times. The other two players can be general-education students, referred to as partner athletes.

“It transcends everything, because you don’t look at the disability or the ability — you look at the athlete,” said Special Olympics Washington vice president of sports and community outreach Joe Hampson, who was in attendance for the Kamiak-Mariner game. “Once they hit the court, everything else is just wiped away and it’s about playing, developing friendships, unity and acceptance.”

Unified sports have existed in Washington state in a recreational format since the early 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2009 that Special Olympics developed a competitive model in which schools would compete against one another.

There are now more than 150 schools across the state with unified sports teams, including eight in Snohomish County. Edmonds-Woodway, Lynnwood and Snohomish each have both unified basketball and soccer teams, while Granite Falls, Shorecrest and Shorewood each have soccer teams.

This is Kamiak’s second season with a unified basketball team and Mariner’s first. Kamiak has 11 Special Olympics athletes and 14 partners on its team, while Mariner has five of each. Both teams had been practicing on a regular basis prior to Thursday night’s matchup, which was the first game of the season for each side.

“When we first started this thing in the schools in 2009, this is what we envisioned would be the outcome,” Hampson said after the game. “And now we’re seeing it — not just here in Mukilteo, but all across the state. It’s amazing.”

The Special Olympics athletes dazzled the energetic crowd with their play throughout the night, eliciting cheers from both sides after each made basket. One of the many highlights was Kamiak junior Christian Hardman hitting three 3-pointers in the first quarter.

“You see stars being made,” Hampson said. “We had athletes hitting 3-pointers time and time again. It wasn’t just that one shot at the buzzer and everybody sends it off on social media. This was happening throughout the game.”

“I think people are surprised,” Mariner coach Austin Richard said of the talent level. “And I think that’s kind of the whole purpose of this — breaking down barriers. Having our kids be able to run an offense around pick and rolls, move without the ball and find open space — watching them execute that tonight was pretty cool. And I think people don’t expect that. They watch it and it’s pretty sweet.”

Hampson said the impact of unified sports stretches beyond the court.

“It unifies the school,” Hampson said. “These athletes and unified partners, they’re going to go back to school tomorrow and they’re going to know their names in the hall. It’s going to break down stereotypes. You’ll have athletes no longer sitting by themselves in the cafeteria. (They will get) high-fives. It’s going to be amazing. It’s not how I grew up.”

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