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The LEAP Student Blog

'Unified by Sports' by Gillian Spilker, Bellingham HS
 11/19/2021 12:00:00 AM

Gillian Spilker
Bellingham High School, Class of 2023

It has been said that sports is life with the volume turned up. February 20, 2020—right before the world tipped upside-down—my town turned the volume way up on a Unified basketball game. The last big event I attended before the pandemic was wall-to-wall in my high school gym, a cheering crowd stomping and yelling and dancing and high-fiving, in joy and competition, intense rivalry and a profound spirit of unity.

When people with strong passion come together to compete they are competing for the same thing even when they are competing against each other. Sports celebrate diversity—the tall, the agile, the fast, the flexible all stand out-- but when the game or match or race begins, they are also the great equalizer: everybody is seeking the same singular goal. In a counterintuitive way competition, and the intense passion poured into competition, breeds union and camaraderie, unites people of all kinds. 

Unified sports are a prime example of sports breaking down differences among people and creating camaraderie through a shared passion. Unified Sports is a program under the Special Olympics (and works closely with the WIAA) that allows for students with and without disabilities to play on the same sports team. Unified teams, which now countless middle and high schools in Washington state have started, break down stereotypes, erase the lines separating people with differences in ability, and unite passion within people in a way only sports can do.

I first heard about the “Fill the Gym” game when my school started promoting it in mid-January of 2020. Soon after, I read about it from the local radio station: “BHS hopes to set a record for the largest number of fans watching a Unified Basketball game in the state.” Bellingham High School planned to pack the gym with fans for the game against cross-town rivals, Sehome High School’s Unified team. Preparations for the game began early, including the cheer and dance teams from both schools learning routines for halftime, getting drumline to welcome the players into the gym, and, of course, promoting the event to ensure a huge crowd from both Bellingham and Sehome students. Posters were made and hung everywhere, and announcements ensured everyone knew about the game.

On gameday, the gym was animated, one side a sea of red, the other green. Everyone was on their feet, clapping and yelling. The cheerleaders from both schools lined up and made a tunnel for the players to run through—as they did, a booming voice announced each player’s name. The crowd went bonkers. Then the ref blew tip-off—the energy from within the crowd was powerful, like you could feel the emotion pouring out from each individual fan. At half, cheer and dance performed, hyping the crowd more. This game is perhaps the most memorable to me because it was the last big event before our school shut down—its life, its energy, made it one to remember.

There’s a difference between making someone feel welcome and making sure everyone belongs. We can say our school is welcoming to everyone, but creating belonging is much more meaningful. It’s making someone feel seen, and loved, and appreciated. Through sports, our shared passions and drives, our school and our world can move from welcoming to belonging. In the end, it isn’t huge events like the Fill the Gym that promote inclusion and belonging in sports—it’s the team experiences, like riding the bus or doing a handshake with a teammate. 

The game did break the attendance record for a Unified game in the Washington, with nearly 1000 fans in the gym. But it also contributed to a culture of belonging for Bellingham, all thanks to a sports game.

To see a video made on the event, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WgrrqWu6sFw

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November 2021

11/19/2021 'Unified by Sports' by Gillian Spilker, Bellingham HS

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