Game Changer: Arizona Schools Are Pioneering a New Kind of Special Olympics

Kellis High School senior Kaleb Powell earned his Unified Special Olympics letter for bowling, basketball, soccer, track, softball, football, and cheer.
Kellis High School senior Kaleb Powell earned his Unified Special Olympics letter for bowling, basketball, soccer, track, softball, football, and cheer.
Evie Carpenter

On a cool winter evening in 2013, dozens of cheerleaders gathered in an old recreation hall near downtown Mesa for the East Valley's regional Special Olympics competition.

With some time to spare before the official event, Tempe's team hustles into a side room with fluorescent lights and worn blue carpet to go over the routine it's practiced for months, a number featuring several simple, traditional cheers followed by a short dance sequence to a medley of pop songs -- starting with Taylor Swift's "I Knew You Were Trouble (When You Walked In)" and culminating with "Gangnam Style."

It's not easy to choreograph for Team Tempe. Members range from my daughter, Sophie, 9 and competing for the first time -- so small her brand-new XS uniform had to be pinned at the waist -- to a couple of Special Olympics veterans in their 50s. Not everyone is entirely mobile. With all kinds of intellectual disabilities (several team members, like Sophie, have Down syndrome; some are on the autism spectrum or have other diagnoses like cerebral palsy), it's hard to know who will remember what. The rules allow the coaches to stand in front of the group and remind them of moves during competition.

No aerial handsprings or backflips for Team Tempe; we parents are just hoping this night that everyone will remember to put on sunglasses tucked into uniforms and cross arms over chests in unison at the end of "Gangnam Style."

As Sophie's coaches hand out sunglasses and tie pompons onto tennis shoes, my eyes wander to another team practicing on the other side of the room. These Special Olympians look much different from the members of my daughter's team. I nudge my friend Beth; her daughter, Tatum, is a classmate of Sophie's. Tatum also has Down syndrome and she, too, is competing for the first time.

Soon, Beth and I are gawking as the young girls from this other team easily form a pyramid. A few of them obviously have intellectual disabilities, but others look like they came out of Central Casting, vying for the role of "perky young cheerleader," as they leap into the air, turn cartwheels, and cheer with clear voices.

"What the hell?" I mutter to Beth, pointing. "That one doesn't even look like she has so much as a speech delay! What are they doing here?"

Beth shakes her head and goes off to investigate. She's back a few minutes later.

"They're part of this other kind of Special Olympics," she reports. "It's called Unified."


Sophie, the littlest member of the city of Tempe's Special Olympics cheer team.
Sophie, the littlest member of the city of Tempe's Special Olympics cheer team.
Amy Silverman

Even if you aren't close to someone with an intellectual disability, chances are good you are familiar with Special Olympics -- from a story on TV news about an inspiring bowling team or heartwarming images in the newspaper of proud, shivering swimmers lined up to accept medals. Special Olympics gives people with intellectual disabilities of all levels of athletic ability a chance to compete in a variety of events.

Simple, right? Not really. Turns out Special Olympics in the 21st century is much more complicated. For the pioneers of Project Unify, an offshoot of the original program, it's not just about putting people with special needs in the spotlight and giving them a little exercise. It's also about trying to answer fundamental questions: How do we help these people forge meaningful connections and friendships? How do we teach typical children and adults to be less afraid, to value a person regardless of his or her IQ? And how do we take this off the field and into real life?

Here, perhaps, is the most surprising part. Out of all the places in the world that participate in Special Olympics, Arizona is leading the charge in this ambitious effort. Yes, Arizona -- a place that elects hate-filled and ignorant politicians, where people are punished for their differences, where budgets are starved and social-welfare indicators bottom out on all kinds of rankings.

It's not easy, and not just because it's in Arizona. Some fans of traditional Special Olympics don't want typical peers (called "partners" in Unified) stealing attention from "athletes" (participants with disabilities). One of the biggest challenges is whether to use a competitive model. Even with rules and referees, it's difficult in some Unified sports to maintain an even playing field that allows athletes to score -- and shine. Some say competition has no place in Special Olympics at all. Others vehemently disagree.

These are the fine points of the argument. For once, Arizona is not the least-evolved place.

Earlier this year, officials at a high school in Wichita, Kansas, made national headlines when they asked a boy with Down syndrome and autism to remove the letterman jacket his mother had bought to recognize his basketball skills.

But at Raymond S. Kellis High School in Glendale, several students with special needs wear letterman jackets with the blessing of Special Olympics and the Arizona Interscholastic Association, which recently amended its bylaws to allow kids participating in Unified sports programs to earn an official letter.

The AIA likes Unified as much for what it does for typical kids as for what it does for those with special needs. These days, high school sports tend to draw only super-athletes, leaving most kids in the dust. Kids of average ability make a terrific pool of partners, according to the Special Olympics officials I spoke with -- and they get in shape emotionally as well as physically, often building truly meaningful relationships through teamwork.

Sounds awesome, right?

My interest in Unified sports grew as my daughter entered junior high. Sophie is the busiest person I know. She still cheers for Team Tempe and is on the city's Special Olympics track team. She takes swimming and ballet lessons with typical kids and sometimes participates in a drama program designed for people with special needs. Our neighborhood junior high has welcomed Sophie, putting her in general-education classes with an aide, making room for her on the junior varsity cheer team, and starting a Best Buddies chapter and a drama club, in part at my urging.

But while these classes, clubs, teams, and programs put Sophie in touch with other kids her own age -- indeed, Best Buddies is designed specifically to foster relationships between typical kids and those with intellectual disabilities -- as we near the end of Sophie's first year in middle school, her best friend is her 18-year-old babysitter.

Every morning, it's a battle to get Sophie to school. She says it's the dress code, but I worry it's the lack of a social life that keeps her in bed with the covers over her head. Every weekend, she begs me for a sleepover date. I keep coming up empty, and it breaks both our hearts.

I'm a little biased, I'll admit, but Sophie is the most loving, gregarious, engaging kid I know -- and yet she has almost no meaningful friendships with other girls her own age.

It also should be stated that Sophie can be bossy. She's half the size of most of her peers. And while she works hard to refine her tween tastes, Sophie still sometimes sucks her thumb. If given the choice, she'll watch The Wonder Pets and Peppa Pig. She collects paintbrushes because they feel soft, and she sees nothing odd about giving one as a gift to a new acquaintance. She's different. And different can be a hard sell anywhere. But particularly in junior high.

Sophie had true, meaningful friendships in elementary school -- invitations to birthday parties, sleepover dates, giggle fests -- and very little of that had to be manufactured. For the most part, the other kids accepted her. No one has been mean to Sophie in middle school (that I know of), but no one's reached out to her much, either. Even though she's mainstreamed in the classroom, it's as though she's on her own divergent course -- one that's taking her further and further away from her peers.

To complicate matters, Sophie has trouble relating to other kids with special needs. She and her cheer teammate, Tatum, have been in school together since kindergarten, and they are friends, but really, the only thing they have in common is that they both have Down syndrome. Tatum is tall and athletic, queen of the monkey bars, reserved and mature. Sophie's more the goofy, girly extrovert. I know the girls love each other, but I have a feeling that they wonder why they are shoved together so often, why they wind up eating lunch together every day.

Not long ago, Sophie told me, "Tatum's hard to understand when she talks." The girls have a very similar speech impediment, a byproduct of the low muscle tone common in people with Down syndrome -- but how do I say to Sophie, "Yeah, well, so are you"?

Sophie is stuck between two worlds, not comfortable in either, and I don't see that getting better as she gets older. When she was born, well-meaning friends sent me copies of feel-good stories about kids with Down syndrome being named as king or queen of the high school prom.

"Well, that's something," I recall saying at the time. "I didn't even go to my prom."

So maybe we've got prom covered. But with high school looming, I'm worried about the other 364 nights of the year. I don't want my kid to be a mascot -- or a footnote on someone else's college application under "volunteer activities."

I cringe when I see stories about the "team manager" on the high school basketball team who made the winning shot at a game -- relegated to a bench for the entire season, given one moment in the spotlight. Inevitably, that kid has an intellectual disability such as Down syndrome. Inevitably, the whole thing is filmed for the evening news.

High fives all around, right? Meh.

There's a video making the rounds of a three-point basket made by Mason Rivera, an athlete on the Liberty High School Lions Unified team, during the state championship game February 28 at Gila River Arena. The shot brought the Lions within seven points of the Perry High School Pumas at halftime. In the end, the Lions lost, but that shot was a hard-earned, meaningful moment for Rivera -- not just a token.

I'd like to sign up my kid for Unified. But it's not offered in Sophie's school district, and so far, none of the Special Olympics events in which she participates has adopted the Unified model.

So while Sophie was getting adjusted to junior high last fall, I decided to find out more about Unified. I met a coach from Gilbert, a special-education teacher in Glendale, a volleyball team in Peoria, and two best friends from Chandler. I heard and saw great examples of teamwork, sportsmanship, and life-changing experiences. I also learned about some Unified experiences that didn't go so well. There are families who prefer old-school Special Olympics, and one mom who doesn't care for it at all.

This summer at the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles, Project Unify will be center stage. Like it or not, this is the future of Special Olympics.

For the most part, I like it. If there's one thing being the parent of a kid with special needs has taught me, it's that there's no easy fix, no one-size-fits-all solution -- for anything. But what these people in Arizona are doing is a real game changer.


Tim Martin, executive director of Special Olympics Arizona.
Tim Martin, executive director of Special Olympics Arizona.
Evie Carpenter

In September 2013, Tim Shriver took the stage as the keynote speaker at Special Olympics Arizona's annual "Breakfast for Champions" -- and quickly brought down the house.

Immortalized on YouTube, John F. Kennedy's nephew -- chairman of the worldwide Special Olympics organization and son of the organization's founder -- begins with a story, explaining that he'd gotten in the elevator at the Arizona Biltmore that morning with five beautiful ladies in hats and ruffles. "They're really ready for a party," Shriver explains, smirking, clearly relishing the tale.

One looked right at him and asked, "Has anyone ever told you you look like a Kennedy?"

"And I said, 'Well, yeah, I've heard that before,'" Shriver tells the crowd, a twinkle in his eye. "And the other one said, 'That must really piss you off, huh?'"

After the laughter subsides, Shriver gets serious.

"I'm really excited to be here and to be in Arizona. Not because of any political color. I'm not here for the weather. I'm here because of the people in this room who have built one of the leading Special Olympics programs in the world."

Shriver backs up for a history lesson, recalling that in 1964, his mother created a camp in the family's backyard. Camp Shriver was open all summer long, welcoming dozens of people with intellectual disabilities from nearby institutions to play ball, learn obstacle courses, and bounce on a trampoline. In the morning, a flag went up, and everyone sang the national anthem; in the evening, buses came and picked up the campers.

"If you're 4 years old and your backyard turns into a camp, you're a pretty happy kid," Shriver says, recalling that he didn't always understand what the campers said, why they were wearing helmets, or why they looked a little different. He was intrigued. Later he learned that his Aunt Rosemary, his mother's sister -- the late president's sister -- was intellectually disabled. He looked at family photos; Rosemary never was included in images from JFK's political life.

"The shame, the fear, had affected my family, too," Shriver says.

And it inspired his mother. In 1968, hundreds gathered on Soldier Field in Chicago for the first official Special Olympics. These, Shriver says, were "the most forgotten people in the country," and his mother had the audacity to call them Olympians.

Thanks to Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the term "Special Olympics" is now a part of the world's vocabulary.

In 1989, the first official "integrated" softball game was played, a hint of what would someday become Project Unify, says Jon-Paul St. Germain, senior director for Unified Sports and Sport Partnerships for Special Olympics, based in Washington, D.C.

But it was many years before Unified really took off. For a long time, simply getting people with intellectual disabilities "out of the shadows and onto the playing field" was an effort, St. Germain says.

Then there was a push to demonstrate that Special Olympics athletes were capable of more -- swimming in open water, running marathons, and participating in equestrian sports.

Eventually, St. Germain says, "Within the organization, you started to see that more people were pushing further, and expectations were getting higher and higher, and there was a desire to become more inclusive."

But Unified is not such an easy model. It works best when athletes and partners are equally matched in skill, a particular challenge in sparsely populated areas or when you're gathering participants from group homes instead of community centers or schools. It took time and effort, but eventually, at a global congress in Morocco in 2010, Unified Sports was identified as a priority to keep the games relevant, bring more people in, and overcome stigmas, St. Germain says.

The goal was to reach 1 million participants by the end of 2015. When I spoke to St. Germain last fall, it already was up to more than 800,000.

Unified started in Connecticut, and Arizona definitely has made a mark in the past few years as a leader in recruiting in the community -- but the place where local leaders really have made a difference is the development of programs in schools.

Tim Martin, executive director of Special Olympics Arizona, sounds almost religious in his dedication to the Unified model. For him, it's personal.

As a high school sophomore in Anchorage, Alaska, in the mid-'80s, "I was a kid who made every bad decision you can imagine," he admits. He had no father. But he did have a football coach. One day, the coach ordered him to work on throwing a softball with some intellectually disabled kids.

At the time, what he was doing didn't have a name. "What I did was Unified. We didn't get to compete together, but we got to be together," Martin says. "It simply changed my view . . . I had a responsibility, and I could help others, and they could help me."

Eventually, Martin moved to Arizona and worked at the state Department of Economic Security and then the YMCA. When he joined Special Olympics Arizona in 2009, things were not in good shape. The average athlete's age was 40. Enrollment wasn't high. Neither was the budget.

But Martin knew about Unified, and he was determined to make it "systemic" in Arizona. Today, he chairs the Global Unified Sports Advisory Group, responsible for everything from planning for the world games to training Unified leaders all over the world. In four and a half years, he says, Special Olympics Arizona's annual budget has gone from $2.6 million to $4.5 million. He's done it by partnering with groups like the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

Last fall, several AIA and Special Olympics Arizona staff members gathered around a big conference table at AIA headquarters to tell me about the connection the two organizations have made.

AIA is the 100-year-old organization that governs sports and other extracurricular activities at the 270 high schools in the state. When Tim Martin met AIA director Chuck Schmidt, there was an instant connection, and it was decided that, someday, Unified would be as important to AIA as the state football and basketball championships. Unified became an official designation in the AIA bylaws, which is what allows Unified kids (both athletes and partners) to earn letters. Arizona's the first state to do this, they say.

"It's an official sport; it's the real deal," Martin says. Now the men are working on developing national and international training models.

"Tim sold me on it," Schmidt says, adding that what's happening is nothing short of "changing the mindset of what sports is."

Schmidt acknowledges that a very small percentage of high school varsity players in Arizona will go on to become professional athletes. But Unified gives them a different set of tools that they will use for life.

"Unified -- truly in my 15 years at AIA -- is the greatest chance," Schmidt says, "to teach someone how to be caring and compassionate and resolve conflict."

"The coolest thing about our relationship with AIA is that the answer is always yes," Martin adds. "There's just no relationship like it in the country."

Okay, I say, deciding it's time for a challenge. Here's the thing. I never played sports in high school. I was a nerd -- I debated. And I see that AIA regulates speech and debate. Are there plans in the works to offer a Unified Speech and Debate program? Sophie would love that.

Around the table, eyebrows go up. It's quiet for a few moments, then someone chuckles and changes the subject. Later, a Special Olympics staffer says Tim Martin has told him to figure out a way to make it happen.


Jacob May (foreground) keeps his eye on the volleyball at a Unified practice.
Jacob May (foreground) keeps his eye on the volleyball at a Unified practice.
Evie Carpenter

Kevin McGee and Austin Rector -- athlete and partner, respectively -- are the unofficial poster boys of Special Olympics Arizona, the topic of a promotional video, and the first people who come to mind when a reporter asks to interview kids affected by Unified. Over lunch at Red Robin one day this spring, I learned why.

As Rector tells it, in fourth grade in Chandler, he was a chubby kid with a speech impediment, "bullied about every day." He was put into a speech class. Other kids in the speech class had been bullied, too.

"We were all being picked on because we were all just a little bit different," he says. It happened in class, out of class. Recess was the worst. So Rector would hide in the room where speech class was offered. Years later, he realized that was the special education room.

Rector didn't have special needs -- his speech problem was resolved quickly -- but he learned what it was like for the kids who did. Things finally improved for him at the end of eighth grade, he says, when his voice deepened and he got taller.

As a freshman at Hamilton High School, Rector didn't forget about the kids from special ed. He joined Best Buddies, a national mentoring organization that matches typical peers with kids with special needs. Hamilton's club was run by seniors, and when they left, Rector found himself in charge. When he left Hamilton, he says, Best Buddies was the school's largest club.

Even better: Unified Special Olympics. Rector was on the varsity swim team and playing club basketball, but he gave that up as a junior for Unified's track, basketball, and flag football teams.

That's how he met Kevin McGee.

Halfway through lunch, as McGee slurps down his second root beer float (there were jokes around the table about just how many floats the lanky boy is capable of consuming in one sitting), I lean over and quietly consult with Isaac Sanft, a Special Olympics staffer along for the session. Later, he confirms that McGee has neurofibromatosis, a genetic condition associated with learning disabilities, among other things.

It's hard at first to tell that McGee has an intellectual disability; it becomes more apparent as we talk. But it's true that McGee is different from a lot of Unified athletes, in that he's able to express pretty eloquently what the program has meant to him.

McGee grew up in New Jersey. "My elementary school, it was really rough," he says, looking down. "You didn't know what was around the corner." He was afraid to go to the bathroom, says he was attacked from behind once.

"He's the first friend I had," he says, interrupting the narrative and pointing to Rector. That was in 10th grade. Several years before that, McGee's family had moved to Arizona, where he tried private school and then was home-schooled.

"I was still friendless," he says, bluntly. "I was bored, and I was beginning to get depressed."

He says his mom started Googling, looking for something for him to do, and found a nearby Unified Special Olympics program that offered flag football. He met Rector there and, through him, decided to try Hamilton.

Kids made "special ed" jokes a lot before Unified, Rector recalls. That's stopped. Today, Rector attends community college and works for the city of Chandler's adaptive recreation program. McGee is in his second senior year at Hamilton. He has a job at Dunkin' Donuts and wants to study culinary arts after graduation. Rector has a girlfriend. She plays flag football on a Unified team; so do both of Rector's parents. In fact, the McGee and Rector families gather together often for game nights.

"We're great friends," McGee says.

"We're best friends," Rector responds. Like brothers. "It's changed my life like crazy," he adds. "Kevin's one of the only people I can truly rely on."

They both look bashful, and the conversation falls off. Sanft jumps in.

"You know how you can tell two guys are really friends? When it's awkward to talk about."


Sam (center) founded Detour Theater Company because she didn't believe Special Olympics was enough.
Sam (center) founded Detour Theater Company because she didn't believe Special Olympics was enough.
Evie Carpenter

After 26 years with the city of Peoria's adaptive recreation program, Paula Considine has seen a lot -- including some failed attempts at Unified sports.

She says she'd never consider starting a Unified basketball team or trying flag football again. Both get too competitive, and not in a good way. But when several families approached her this year asking for Unified volleyball, she agreed to give it a chance.

Considine was impressed that a few of her team members were local kids who had participated in Unified in high school and wanted to continue after graduation. Plus, she says, Unified allows family members to play together. On a recent Monday night in the cafeteria at Sun Valley Elementary School in Peoria, Considine's two teams practice for an upcoming tournament. Balls fly across the gym, thwacking white linoleum; the rules require that players have minimal contact with the ball, and teammates work together to encourage athletes to keep it in play.

"No matter what, it's always fun," says Haley Iunski, a partner and a senior at Liberty High School who has volunteered with Special Olympics since eighth grade. She takes a quick break to talk, her face flushed. "It still gets competitive."

An athlete named Jacob May takes his turn serving. Throughout the practice, his teammates admonish him to not hit the ball quite so hard.

"He's strong!" I say, as a ball whizzes by our heads.

"He's showing off," Considine replies, not unkindly.

On a bench nearby, two women hold court like Statler and Waldorf, the old men in the balcony on The Muppet Show. Diana May is Jacob's grandmother. Vicky Mitchell's son, Joshua Fenster, also is an athlete.

The women talk, finishing each other's sentences and eyeing the flying balls. Joshua, who is 35, competes in softball, basketball, and bowling.

"What does he not do?" May asks of Jacob -- who plays golf, softball, floor hockey, and more.

Neither woman is particularly keen on Unified, though both admit that volleyball has been okay.

"The football stunk," May says. Mitchell adds that the people with special needs were left out. "They just wanted to win," she says of the partners. She says she told Tim Martin as much. But with volleyball, the coaches are good, and everyone's included. The women are happy.

Some parents aren't ready to reconsider. Sam (she doesn't use a last name) decided to create a theater company for people with intellectual disabilities (it's since grown to include people with physical disabilities and mental illness) after her son, Christopher, had some not-great experiences with Special Olympics. She's not a big fan of either the traditional approach or Unified.

"I've seen those Unified games," she says. "And what happens is that, in the heat of the moment, they want to win. It's a really dangerous concept. Because in order to win in the traditional sense, you have to have the most points."

From her perspective, "Unified has one purpose . . . So we can be more typical and win."

For Detour Theater Company, Sam recruits coaches who work closely with cast members to help them be their best onstage. The coaches typically do not have onstage roles, although they appear alongside cast members. (Full disclosure: My daughter Sophie will appear in an upcoming Detour production, with her older sister working as her coach.)

In Detour, everyone gets a role (some are bigger than others, and if you don't get a lead in one production, chances are good you'll get one in another), and no one is left out. By contrast, Sam says, Christopher was once told he wasn't good enough to compete on a Unified team.

"It hurts me when my son comes home and says, 'I'm not good enough,'" she says. "Really, do these kids have to be told that they're second-class citizens anymore?"


Special-education teacher Michael Wakeford coaches Special Olympics athletes.
Special-education teacher Michael Wakeford coaches Special Olympics athletes.
Evie Carpenter

I have a feeling that even Sam would be a fan of Unified if she could spend just an hour at Kellis High School.

Ten minutes into my first visit to the school, which sits just off Glendale Avenue in the shadow of University of Phoenix Stadium, I started wondering how I could get Sophie enrolled -- damn the commute from Tempe.

I'm not alone. Special-education teacher Michael Wakeford estimates that next year the school's program will grow from 55 to 70 kids. Also on the rise: the number of typical kids vying for spots as partners in the Unified Sports class Wakeford offers each semester.

Several years ago, Special Olympics Arizona embedded a staff person in the Peoria School District to write curriculum that's now used in more than 50 high schools across the state. The result is a model that's been studied by Nike (results are forthcoming) and praised by Tim Shriver, who visited Kellis when he came to Arizona in 2013.

Today, Unified Sports has a spot on the varsity photo wall at Kellis; the school has given out four letters to Unified athletes. Unified athletes routinely speak at graduation. One day on campus I did a double-take as a kid walked by with an acoustic guitar with a "Spread the Word to End the Word" (the word is "retarded," by the way) bumper sticker on it. There's now a Unified Dance class, and the wood shop teacher recently asked Wakeford how he could get involved.

On a recent Friday afternoon, students gather in Wakeford's class for Unified Sports, wearing neon-orange shirts with the motto, "We Are Able," sweaty and excited from a pep rally. The teacher calls roll, then praises the kids for their dance performance. The reaction from the crowd was amazing, he says, rubbing his arms:

"Talking about it right now gives me goose bumps."

In jeans and Converse with a beard that's the topic of several posters in his classroom, Wakeford clearly is a rock star on this campus. Repeatedly, Tim Martin and other Special Olympics administrators comment that it's the individual people who make Unified work, and this guy is clearly one of them. After he takes attendance, Wakeford aims his large group toward the school's practice gym, where they'll work with volleyballs and soccer balls.

The kids practice kicking and throwing, cracking each other up and -- once in a while -- earning a timeout for kicking a ball a little too hard. One young man, a partner, carefully holds his athlete's elbow, helping him navigate the busy, noisy gym.

The program didn't get this good overnight, Wakeford admits. One of the keys to success, he says, is that Kellis uses a training model rather than a competitive one.

"The competitive model asks a lot of things that, on paper, look great," he says, that in many ways go against "the reason we do all this."

He's seen ugly situations, including a particularly bad experience during a soccer game at the national games in Nebraska several years ago. The partner's job is to help the athletes, not show off, Wakeford says, and the problem is that Unified's competitive rules are complicated on purpose, designed to allow athletes to score. He saw both athletes and partners reduced to tears after a poorly trained referee made bad calls, and it was then that Wakeford decided to go in a different direction.

He believes that by eliminating competition, true sportsmanship comes through.

"Competitiveness and Special Olympics aren't words that go together," he says.


Tim Martin doesn't agree with this.

"Every child deserves to fail miserably and have to be picked up and dusted off," he says.

I love where Sam and Michael Wakeford are coming from -- but Martin makes a good point, too. So many sports programs for kids with special needs -- there are others, Special Olympics is just the best-known -- never keep score, never make the experience real. The participants never know what it's like to really play a game, what it's like to lose -- or win.

All this was on my mind on a clear, sunny Saturday in February, when I joined hundreds of people stuffed in an elementary school gym in Gilbert to watch the state 2015 Special Olympics cheerleading competition. As one of a handful of traditional teams that still remain, Sophie's group performed near the end, and I wiggled around on the hard floor, trying to get comfortable, finally spotting an empty chair against the wall and lunging for it.

"There are more Unified teams than ever," the older woman sitting next to me says as Yuma takes the stage. Her daughter is in her 20s and is on Mesa's team. Mesa and Tempe almost always compete against each other. Mesa still has a traditional team, too.

What do you think? I ask. Do you like Unified?

"I'm not into it," she says. "I wouldn't mind if they had more normal people doing the coaching, giving personal attention. But not performing."

As I watch group after group take the small stage, I have to agree. I am a fan of Unified in a lot of instances, but not when it comes to cheerleading. I've been watching, and maybe I've just missed it, but out of dozens of participants, I haven't seen any of the partners hanging out with the athletes during downtime. Instead, I've seen quite a few perfect little girls steal the spotlight from kids and adults who rarely get a chance to shine.

Finally, it's Team Tempe's turn, and I scurry to the front of the crowd, camera phone ready, to catch Sophie in action. The stakes are high today. Tempe hasn't won first place in recent memory, maybe not ever, despite adding tricks like (attempts at) somersaults and clumsy lifts. Earlier, one of the coaches joked with Sophie -- still the smallest member of the team -- that the only thing left would be to shoot her out of a cannon. Sophie didn't find that very funny and kept asking about it, a little worried.

Tempe nails the routine, rocking out to Meghan Trainor's "All About That Bass" and Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off," then the team settles down to wait for results. Even though I know it's not supposed to matter, I am dreading the announcement that once again, we lost.

But we don't lose, not this time. Tempe was taking home the gold. It takes a few minutes for them to realize they've won, but when they do, Sophie and her teammates beam, bowing their heads one by one to receive their gold medals.

I realize there really is something to this Special Olympics thing, a magic that you can't always capture. The rare day you do makes it all worthwhile. Whether it's a traditional model or Unified, Eunice Kennedy Shriver was onto something with the simple idea of pulling people with intellectual disabilities out of the shadows -- and daring to call them Olympians. I catch my friend Beth's eye from across the gym, and we grin, our eyes glistening with tears. "Winning matters!" she mouths over the roar of the crowd. "It really matters."

And in this moment, nothing else does.

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