On November 30th, 2017, three yellow school buses pulled up to the doors of Twin City Lane in Barre, Vermont. Students filed into the bowling alley, wearing a t-shirt with their school’s name on it. Yellow blue and green shirts represented the three teams- Harwood, U-32, and Montpelier. Tying the red and blue shoes, they talked excitedly with their classmates- it was the first and final Unified Sports bowling tournament of the season. The crowd was divided into three groups- Montpelier, U-32, and Harwood Union High School.
Unified Sports is a sports program combining Special Olympic Athletes and partners as teammates for practice and competition in bowling, snowshoeing, and bocce. It is an inclusive activity that brings neighboring schools together for competition at the end of each season.
Microphone in hand, Amy Molina welcomed all of the students to the tournament and told students to find their lanes with their partners. The television screens turned on, with each group’s names on it.
The unified bowling program has been a part of the U-32 community since 2005. Linda Cueto has been with the program since it began. Cueto goes to every practice, cheering on students as they bowl.
“I had volunteered with Special Olympics previously. I enjoyed doing that. I just thought this whole concept of being paired with a partner was really important,” Cueto said. “Bowling is certainly the most popular sport.”
As the tournament began, each person took their turn to bowl, one at a time. Brooke Merrill picked up a bowling ball and bowled it at the white pins. The ball knocked all of the pins to the ground- a strike! Brooke excitedly turned to his partner, Jack Kurrle, for a bro-hug.
“I started bowling with the Unified Sports program this fall,” Kurrle said. “It’s been very rewarding. Brooke has been my partner since the first day, we have a lot of fun together.”
“Special Olympians really appreciate seeing other kids they don’t normally interact with, and getting to know them. It’s a win-win for everyone,” Cueto said. “In the halls, they say hi to the high schoolers.”
Merrill said getting strikes is his favorite part about bowling.
“It’s my favorite sport,” Merrill said.
When asked about playing with his friends, he turned to Shelby Lavigne: “I like playing with Shelby,” he said. Brooke said it’s exciting to meet people from other schools too.
Merrill said his tournament score was a 40. “I got one strike!” he said.
The bowling season lasts almost three months, the U-32 team meeting once a week. Cueto, who has worked with many volunteers over the years, believes this has a great impact on everyone involved.
“I have had sophomores and juniors volunteer to help them get into a good college. What I’ve seen time after time is that their lives are changed too, for the right reasons,” Cueto said. “They continue to volunteer. Making time for it, for the right reasons.”
Amy Molina announced to the teams that the pizza had arrived. She encouraged students to get a piece of pizza and interact with a student from a different school. Students talked to one another, introducing themselves and sharing about something they like to do.
To anyone interested in joining Unified Sports, Cueto strongly encourages it.
“It’s really fun. It’s not real time consuming,” she said. “You’d get a lot out of it.”
At the end of the tournament, Amy Molina read each participant’s name out loud, as a medal was put over their head, the ribbons matching each student’s school colors.
Students enjoy different moments from Unified Sports.
“Getting a medal!” Shelby Lavigne said is hers.
Cueto said one of her favorite parts of Unified Sports is special Olympians getting a chance to meet others. She sees this happen in unified snowshoeing too.
“Everybody stands there, no matter what school they are from and cheers on each kid to come across the finish line,” Cueto said. “That’s the whole point of it.”