GVSU kicks off Unified Sports program


Two members of GVSU’s Unified Soccer program race to win a loose ball during a match on Wednesday, June 3. The program will conclude with a championship match on June 10.

Adam Knorr

Imagine a soccer league where fans don’t yell at referees, tackles aren’t vicious and smiles are more common than scowls.

Such a league meets on the Grand Valley State soccer fields in Allendale, Mich.

The Unified Soccer league – a partnership of the GVSU community and the Special Olympics of Michigan – is a four-team competitive soccer league with games every Wednesday during the season.

The games feature 20minute halves with a short social halftime and a 7 vs. 7 format with four SOMI athletes and three GVSU students to each team.

“The concept is that it gives a chance for Special Olympics athletes to play side-by-side with GVSU athletes,” said John Rosick, assistant director of Campus Recreation. “It’s fantastic. It gives us a good chance to showcase what our programs at Grand Valley are all about and it makes us feel special that we’re having such a large impact on these Special Olympics participants.”

The games are played with pace and no threshold for action. Shots ring off posts, goaltenders make diving stops and passing and teamwork come in abundance.

Special Olympics athletes have a number of opportunities to get involved athletically, but playing with college students adds an extra level of value for the SOMI members.

“We get the chance to play with people who don’t have disabilities and to actually have fun,” said SOMI athlete Steve Rouiller.

The four teams – the Stars, Entourage, Thunder and Anchor Down – compete in the playoffs, and then square off for the championship game.

Following the championship, all the teams join for a league presentation and ice cream social.

Depending on the turnout, the teams keep the same rosters week to week. The games are played simultaneously side-to-side on the fields, with GVSU students as referees.

“It’s a great opportunity,” said Mackenzie Lucius, graduate assistant for Campus Recreation and organizer of the league. “It’s excellent for (GVSU students) to gain experience working with a different population, be more inclusive and it’s just a good way to be active, have fun and be out here playing soccer and creating new friendships.”

Special Olympics Unified Sports is an international program with over half a million participants, aiming to break down stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities.

Unified Sports, ESPN and the Walt Disney Company recently announced a two-year global initiative that will look to register one million Unified Sports participants – including coaches – by the end of 2015.

GVSU adopted the idea following a visit to Central Michigan, which had already started its own Unified Sports program.

“CMU has a really successful Unified program and we’re trying to build up our adaptive recreation programs here at Grand Valley State,” Rosick said. “We were at our state workshop back in October and had a chance to witness CMU’s Unified flag football program… all of us really embraced it and said we have to have this at GVSU.”

Although the soccer portion of Unified Sports wrapped up on June 10, the program will likely continue at GVSU.

Campus Recreation plans to add flag football, basketball and kickball programs in the future.