Unified Sports creates lasting connections with Special Olympics athletes

UI Recreational Services is comprised of many program areas that work to support the Division of Student Life’s mission to foster student success by creating and promoting inclusive educationally purposeful services and activities with and beyond the classroom. One of those program areas is the Intramural Sports program, which, for the first time ever, offered Unified Sports in the 2017-2018 school year in a partnership with Special Olympics Iowa (SOIA).

The Intramural Sports Program offers an extensive range of sport leagues, tournaments, and events for University of Iowa students, faculty, and staff. Unified Sports, at the intramural level, are sports that pair Special Olympics Athletes with traditional intramural participants, called “Unified Partners”. Special Olympics athletes are those that are a part of the SOIA program. Both Special Olympics athletes and Unified Partners were impacted by this program.

“This program allows Special Olympics athletes to learn the rules and gain a more in-depth understanding of sports like flag football, volleyball, and basketball through friendships with UI students (Unified Partners). This has also allowed the UI students to gain some new and unique friendships as well. In the end, these friendships that are being developed between SOIA athletes and UI students are a true and honest way to build up a growing community of encouragement and happiness,” says Bryan Coffey, director of unified programs for Special Olympics Iowa.

"In the end, these friendships that are being developed between SOIA athletes and UI students are a true and honest way to build up a growing community of encouragement and happiness.”

The Unified Sports program is an excellent initiative which benefits everyone involved. I strongly believe that the model for the unified program is a great way for people who normally wouldn’t interact to do so, which facilitates interpersonal growth for both the college student partners and the Special Olympics athletes,” says Jaison Marks, a UI student that participated as a unified partner.


Unified Basketball participants make new friendships.

The University of Iowa is the first institution in Iowa to offer Unified Sports at the intramural level. The program started with plans to only run Unified Flag Football in fall 2017. But, after seeing the success of Unified Flag Football in the fall semester, Unified Basketball was added to the spring 2018 schedule. In 2018-2019, Unified Volleyball will also be included in the intramural sports calendar.

Unified Flag Football paired 14 SOIA athletes with 22 partners across four different teams. Unified Basketball paired 17 SOIA athletes with 20 partners, also across four teams. The championship games for each league were held at Kinnick Stadium (Flag Football) and Carver-Hawkeye Arena (Basketball).

Due to the success at the University of Iowa, organizers hope that they can utilize a similar framework for implementing unified intramural sports at other institutions around the state. “We wanted to provide this opportunity for our university community here at Iowa, first and foremost,” says Tommy Schorer, associate director of sport programs for Recreational Services. “But, with how successful it has been on our campus, we want to see this to expand to our peer institutions across the state, and maybe culminate with a state championship in each sport.”