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By Gary Brown
When players from Washington University in St. Louis and Amherst College took the court for the title game of the Division III Women’s Basketball Championship on March 19 in Bloomington, Ill., they ran through a tunnel of flags representing the states of the 64 teams that composed the field.
Even more poignant, though, was that the flag-bearers were Special Olympics athletes who were there to tip off Division III’s new philanthropic partnership with the venerable organization that provides year-round sports training and athletics competition for people with intellectual disabilities.
The men’s championship featured interaction between Special Olympics athletes and Division III college all-stars.
The Division III Student-Athlete Advisory Committee announced the partnership with Special Olympics at the 2011 NCAA Convention. While it doesn’t officially begin until the 2011-12 academic year, Division III is already using its championships stage to show what’s possible.
After the players took to their benches at the women’s basketball championship, the Special Olympics athletes handed off their flags and gathered at the endline to high-five the starters as they were announced. The previous day during halftime of the semifinals, some of them divided into teams for a little hoops competition while others donned cheerleader garb and created formations that delighted the crowd.
While that was going on in Illinois, Special Olympics athletes from the state of Virginia were having fun in Salem with student-athletes at the Division III Men’s Basketball Championship. Officials there paired the Special Olympics athletes with Division III student-athletes competing in an all-star game administered by the National Association of Basketball Coaches and sponsored by Reese’s.
During halftimes of the NCAA men’s semifinals, the Special Olympics athletes and the all-stars showed their stuff in a skills event, and then on Saturday during halftime of the all-star contest that preceded the NCAA final, the Special Olympics athletes played a game of their own.
Special Olympics athletes held state flags for the players to run through at the women’s championship.
“To see the joy on the Special Olympics athletes’ faces during all of these events was priceless, as was the interaction they had with the student-athletes,” said Brad Bankston, commissioner of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, which hosted the men’s championship.
Officials from women’s host Illinois Wesleyan had the same reaction. Mike Wagner, an associate AD there, said, “The Special Olympics athletes have a true appreciation for their athletics participation just like Division III student-athletes do. They play for the love of the game. They are competitors. They’re out there having fun but at the same time they want to do well in their sport.”
As it happens, both championships were held in cities that house headquarters for each state’s Special Olympics program. Both Illinois Wesleyan and the ODAC in fact have longstanding relationships with the Special Olympics folks there.
“We had actually already been planning the activities during the semifinals for a while when (NCAA championships staff liaison) Holly Sheilley called and asked if we could work in some things with Special Olympics,” Wagner said. “And I told her, ‘Well as a matter of fact…’ ”
Similarly, the ODAC, all but one of whose 13 members are located in Virginia (Guilford is in North Carolina), is familiar with involving Special Olympics athletes on their campuses and in Salem, which has hosted 60 NCAA championships over time.
Starters high-fived the Special Olympics athletes after they were introduced.
“The Division III partnership is a natural fit not only for the division overall but particularly for us,” Bankston said. “A lot of the community-outreach initiatives that our institutions already conduct involve Special Olympics. I know our conference SAAC will take this partnership and run with it.”
They’ll have the benefit of working with a former student-athlete to do so. Josh Walker, who wrestled at Penn State in the early 2000s and chaired the school’s SAAC, is now the director of development at Special Olympics Virginia. He’s thrilled that Division III is formalizing what already has been a successful collaboration.
“We are in a unique situation here in Virginia because of the ODAC,” he said. “But even in the last month I’ve seen schools that haven’t done much in the past contacting us and asking about getting involved with our athletes – and the partnership hasn’t even officially begun yet.”
That partnership, created to align with the citizenship component of the division’s strategic-positioning platform, is designed as a coordinated community-outreach effort that incorporates the hundreds of SAACs at Division III schools and conference offices with the Special Olympics programs that exist in each state.
To facilitate the effort, the Division III SAAC established a subcommittee to work with conferences to coordinate at least one conference SAAC activity with Special Olympics during the 2011-12 academic year. Individual campus SAACs also will be encouraged to initiate their own outreach, and the Division III SAAC will have plenty of ideas and resources to assist in that regard.
The SAAC prefers that whatever activity is established involve hands-on interaction between Division III student-athletes and Special Olympics athletes. The committee believes that will maximize the benefits of the partnership for both parties.
“That’s something that stays with you long after the project has been completed,” said Division III SAAC chair Marie Godwin, a former volleyball player at Macalester. “To see how that interaction affects the Special Olympics athlete is a much more rewarding feeling. You get a personal link with that person instead of just doing something to raise money.”
Walker couldn’t agree more. He encouraged Division III student-athletes to embrace the opportunity.
“Get to know our athletes, because they’ll shock you with what they can do,” he said.
Walker said in Virginia alone, there’s a golfer ranked No. 1 in Special Olympics worldwide and an athlete who has run the Boston Marathon.
“We’ve also got basketball teams that I would put up against a lot of high school squads,” he said. “But on the flip side, we also have athletes who would never get this opportunity if we didn’t offer it.
“The more time NCAA athletes take to get to know these people, the more they’ll begin to see similarities they can relate to. You’re wasting your time if you spend the day feeling sorry for our athletes.”
Bankston can’t wait for his SAAC to get started. Members already have begun brainstorming about a “tiered” approach next year that includes participation in clinics and events, access to campus facilities and conducting fund-raisers. He said the ODAC athletics directors also meet in early June, and by the end of that meeting they’ll likely have an initiative for the 2011-12 academic year that involves every institution.
That kind of planning figures to ramp up on a national scale during the coming months.
“We chose this organization because there are so many ways to get involved,” Godwin said. “And because Division III is so diverse, there’s enough flexibility in this initiative for every school to find an approach that will work for them.”