The motto “Play Unified” is about bringing athletes of all kinds together.
“The thing about unified sports, and I’m stealing this analogy from former baseball player Carl Erskine who played with Jackie Robinson, (is) it breaks down social barriers,” said Lee Lonzo, director of Champions Together. “Just like it did with the race barrier, it breaks down barriers.”
Abby Abel, a guard who just completed her freshman season on the women’s basketball team at Purdue, has been working to bring Special Olympics to the collegiate level since her senior year of high school. This Sunday, she’ll be putting on an event that does just that.
Purdue students and student-athletes will be paired with Special Olympic athletes and put on four-person teams for a four-on-four tournament from noon to 3 p.m. at Cardinal Court. Abel has worked hard to ensure that the event will be fully staffed by Purdue students, and she has also convinced members of the Purdue men’s and women’s basketball teams to act as coaches.
Despite the support for her idea, there have been challenges along the way.
“I mean the hardest part is to get people to commit,” Abel said. “Because yeah, you want to come, but no one wants to say, ‘Oh yeah I’m free this day.’ I just think that once you see it, you fall in love. ... Once you get involved, you kind of get obsessed with it. It’s pretty awesome.”
Abel’s friends and teammates are rallying around her.
“She told us about the event and, once she tells people, it’s easy to jump on board with this,” junior guard Andreona Keys said. “We know she’s put a lot of work into it; you can tell she’s passionate about this, so it was easy for us to join her.”
Keys will be one of the student-athletes in attendance, along with members of the track and football teams.
Part of Abel’s inspiration came when she attended the World Special Olympics Youth Summit in Los Angeles and presented the “Play Unified” movement as part of a service leadership project. The movement promotes bringing athletes with and without intellectual disabilities together on the same teams.
“It was just so cool to see athletes who never get the opportunity to represent their school or even get to be seen as athletes,” Abel said. “Sometimes they’re not even seen as people, but to give (Special Olympics athletes) the opportunity to actually represent their schools and play a sport that they’re as passionate as I am about, it’s a really cool event.”
For Abel, the event also represents her want for social change.
“I feel like in this day and age, we get so obsessed with winning and being the best,” Abel said. “You see it in youth sports all the time; they tell people they can’t play when they’re younger because ‘you’re not good enough or not tall enough or you’re not big enough.’ When it comes down to it, not everyone can play at the elite level, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t play sports.”
Mitch Bonar, who graduated from Noblesville High School in 2015, was a Special Olympic athlete in high school. He met Abel by becoming partners with her through the Special Olympics National Youth Advisory Committee.
“Ever since then, we became best friends,” Bonar said. “We went to prom together, we broke down so many barriers.”
Bonar competed in Unified track in high school and volunteers as a coach now.
“(Abby and I) have a lot in common: the love of sports, the love of the game, we love sharing what we love doing,” Baron said.
In the future, Abel hopes that the event will spread to other colleges and eventually throughout the Big Ten Conference.