By Brandon Scalea
Most students are used to the thrill and intensity of Division I college basketball games, but for a certain Rider club, there is something a lot more rewarding.
The Unified Sports Club won the Shriver Cup Tournament for the first time in its history on April 2, marking a fitting end to a great winter season, according to Sarah Lent, a junior elementary education major and current club president. Rider’s team participated in a recreational basketball tournament of six New Jersey institutions, beating Princeton, Kean and Georgian Court en route to the victory.
Lent, who has been with Unified Sports since fall 2015, said the trophy was not easily achieved, but it was great to see such improvement over the course of a year. Rider defeated Kean pretty handedly, but only beat Princeton and Georgian Court each by 1 point.
“It was so awesome,” she said. “All our athletes were so happy. During the last couple games, I was coaching and I was so stressed. But to see the looks on our athletes’ faces when we won was just amazing.”
As a team, Rider was handed a trophy, and each athlete and coach was given a gold medal.
The tournament comes after five weeks of recreational play on the weekends. The team plays soccer in the fall and basketball in the winter season. The basketball games are full, NCAA-length games with two 20-minute halves and a team of officials.
Unified Sports is a club that partners with Special Olympics New Jersey, which comprises high school and college-aged people with intellectual disabilities. The club’s mission is to promote an inclusive environment through sport, Lent said.
During basketball season, there are usually three Special Olympics athletes and two Rider students on the court at one time.
“We don’t play down to them,” Lent said. “We usually kind of stay in the background, but we are allowed to score if we want. Most of us just do it for the experience, though. We’re not in it for the athletic aspect.”
The Shriver Cup is named after Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the Special Olympics in 1968.
Before each season begins, there is an “assessment period” where each athlete and partner goes through a variety of drills to determine who gets to play on each team. There are also opportunities for the participants to help with game day operations, keeping score and just rooting the team on.
There are also some off-campus Unified events, including bowling and volleyball. There’s even a Unified Triathlon in New Jersey.
Dianna Clauss, assistant director of campus life for recreational programs, is the club’s adviser. She said that sports are a great vehicle to break down the barriers and stereotypes that exist regarding people with intellectual disabilities. The Unified Sports Club uses that as a tool to better understand intellectual disabilties, and most importantly, to form friendships.
“I’m very proud of our team and how focused they are on sportsmanship and meaningful involvement while participating,” Clauss said. “Special Olympics encourages all participants to focus on these two principles as we ensure everyone is having an enjoyable experience.”