Unified program earns national award

by Clare Tourtelotte, Sports Editor
photo by Maureen Caulfield

Senior Kira Freilich is on the Unified basketball, cheerleading and track and field teams. They said that the Unified teams put in their best foot forward the entire year, and their hard work has finally been recognized.

Last year, South’s Unified Sports program earned National Banner recognition, which reflects the team’s commitment to fostering a supportive community among athletes with and without disabilities. South’s Unified program runs throughout the typical sports seasons with basketball in the fall, cheerleading in the winter and track and field in the spring.

Unified Sports are run by a global organization, the Special Olympics, which was designed to promote inclusion, Unified basketball and track and field coach Alex Strongin said. After the journey the South chapter of the Unified program has been on, Strongin said that earning the National Banner recognition was a high honor for South. 

“The award means that South meets all the national standards of excellence in the areas of inclusion, advocacy and respect,” he said. “This banner will be hung in South as a permanent reminder of their dedication for the past four years [of their high school experience.]”

Due to COVID-19, the Unified team was unable to showcase their banner last year. At South’s home football game on Oct. 16, they revealed the banner for the first time. Graduated and current Unified athletes were invited to South to receive their overdue recognition. 

Freilich said that the Unified team puts in a lot of time and energy, and earning National Banner Recognition reflected that.

“Earning the banner last year was such an amazing feeling,” they said. “We all worked hard as a team to accomplish such excellence.”

Senior Peter Shea has been on the Unified basketball team since his sophomore year. He said that being a part of Unified basketball has helped him grow into a more confident player. 

“My favorite part about participating in Unified sports at South is that it gives me a lot of good opportunities to practice my skills and get even better,” he said. 

Sophomore and member of the Unified basketball and track and field teams Mark Khrapunovich said that earning National Bannger recognition is a reward for all the hardwork, progress and dedication of the Unified Team.

Beyond the recognition, Strongin said that the Unified program at South is a responsible community that works to uplift people.

“The students who join Unified are some of the kindest, most motivated and clever individuals you will ever meet,” he said. 

Senior Katy Blansua has been on the Unified basketball team since her freshman year and said that playing on a Unified team has become an important part of her time at South.

“Unified sports has been one of my best experiences at South. The team atmosphere is

unmatchable, and I look forward to it everyday,” she said. “I love gameday and when the whole team gets involved in playing and cheering.”

Without the team’s continued hard work, receiving a National Banner wouldn’t have been possible, and Blanusa said that she is grateful to have witnessed the Unified program’s growth.  

“Unified basketball began my freshman year, and to see how much it has grown since then is amazing,” Blansua said. “It has been a process in the making and it’s nice to know that all the work to grow Unified basketball over the years has gotten recognized.”