Ryan Prothe, Gardner, really wanted to be a Blazer, but as a student with a disability there weren’t many options for him to wear Gardner Edgerton High School’s Blazer blue.
Ryan played sports on Gardner’s Special Olympics team, the Gardner Gold, but the Gold team doesn’t sport the Blazer logo on its uniforms. Most of the team activities take place away from the school.
“He’s a sports minded guy,” his mom, Carol Prothe, said. “He wants to play sports. In his mind being a Blazer means being on the football team, being on the basketball team.”
He also wanted the opportunity to play in the GEHS gym in front of his peers, and Carol wanted that for him. She approached the city of Gardner, which sponsors the Gardner Gold Special Olympics team, seeking a solution.
Parks and recreation supervisor Adraina Holopirek and Carol approached the Special Olympics organization and learned about its Unified Sports program. The program pairs athletes with intellectual disabilities with partners in a variety of competitive team sports.
With help from the city and support from USD 231, Carol started a unified sports program in Gardner. The Blazer Unified Sports basketball team played its first games last weekend. The 12-member team, comprised of GEHS students with and without disabilities, won its first game and tied a second game at Sumner Academy on Oct. 11. They’ll compete in a tournament in November.
“Right now, those are our only two events,” Holopirek said.
Eventually, the goal is for the team to scrimmage against another
local team during half time of a GEHS high school game.
“(The athletes) want to play on their home gym in front of their home crowd,” Carol explained.
The unified sports athletes also were recognized during a Homecoming pep rally last week.
“They’re walking a little taller,” Carol said.
During practice last week, team member Kristen Lambert was excited to receive her Blazer jersey.
“I love it here,” Lambert said. “I get to hang out with my friends.”
Lambert had never played basketball before joining Gardner’s unified sports team, but her goal for the season is to improve.
“Shooting is my favorite of all time,” she said. “…Sometimes (basketball) is hard to play, but I get through it. This is for fun.”
Holopirek said unified sports are not about the sport itself.
“It’s more about being all-inclusive for our athletes,” she said.
Still, there is an element of competition.
“It’s competitive,” Holopirek said. “We were pretty amazed.”
The Special Olympics teams in Gardner have historically only had athletes between the ages of 8 and 15.
“Once our kids got to 16, we haven’t had enough interest for a team,” Holopirek said.
The unified sports program allows students with and without intellectual disabilities in high school and students up to the age of 21 in USD 231’s Transition Readiness and Independent Living Skills, or TRAILS, program to compete.
Unified sports are growing, and as more teams develop, Holopirek said the USD 231 athletes will have more opportunities to compete.
In addition to a basketball team, officials will field a soccer team in the spring. Carol said any students are welcome to sign up.
“It doesn’t matter the disability,” she said. “You don’t have to be an athlete. You don’t have to know anything about the sport.”
Like other GEHS sports, Carol, who is also one of the coaches, said she plans to host a team dinner.
“I want them to be a Blazer and have the full experience of being a Blazer,” she said.