What is Unified Sports?

An inclusive Special Olympics program in which players with and without intellectual disabilities train and compete on the same team to learn new sports, refine athletic skills, socialize with peers and form new friendships. Unified Sports are now in more than 4,500 elementary, middle and high schools in the United States. Sixty-three high schools in Oregon have teams. The Oregon School Activities Association partnered with Special Olympics three years ago to host Unified basketball state championships.

Patricia Chavira Grever had mixed emotions as she walked off Oregon State’s Gill Coliseum floor earlier this month.

Her team had just won a state championship, but it was also the last time she would play basketball with Bend High’s Unified Sports program.

“I kind of teared up at the end,” Chavira Grever said. “It’s kind of crazy that I don’t ever get to do this again, but it was a cool last experience.”

Bend has 57 students in its Unified Sports program — 33 athletes with intellectual disabilities and 24 partners like Chavira Grever, a senior who has been both a mentor in a special education classroom and a partner for the past four years.

“It’s been such a joy because you get to watch these kids grow and have so much fun,” Chariva Grever said. “You get to help them and see how they grow as an individual and an athlete and help them to be well-rounded people. To see that happen, it’s just a really cool experience.”

Bend High fielded four coed basketball teams this winter. Its A team, made up of the program’s top 12 players — eight athletes and four partners — competed in the Oregon School Activities Association’s Unified basketball tournament March 8-9 at OSU in Corvallis.

“When I walked out there, my jaw dropped, literally,” said Bend athlete Jack Bailey of playing at Gill Coliseum, home of the Beavers. “I was amazed. When I was looking around, it felt like I was at OSU being an athlete.”

Senior Carson Hall, also an athlete, hopes to one day be a student at Oregon State.

“I want to go to that school after I get done with COCC,” he said. “It was my first time on campus. It was awesome to see what it’s like and campus life. It’s a really nice facility. It’s huge.”

The Lava Bears defeated Sutherlin 33-26 on March 9 to win the state championship. Hall had 10 points and five rebounds.

“It was my senior year, so I was really giving it all I got because I really wanted the trophy,” Hall said. “It was a real joy.”

Bailey said he felt like he was playing in a movie.

“In the end, my mind was playing the (Queen) song ‘We Are the Champions,’ ” he said. “When we won, it felt like the movie ‘Miracle.’ ”

Bend, Sutherlin and Forest Grove were the three original Oregon high schools to start Unified programs.

Twelve years later, 63 high schools in the state have teams, according to Jean Hansen, vice president of school partnerships and youth outreach for Special Olympics Oregon.

The OSAA, which oversees most high school sports in Oregon, partnered with Special Olympics three years ago to host Unified basketball state championships.

Unified teams play by the same OSAA rules, but three athletes and two partners must be on the court at a time.

“When you’re blending together and partners are playing within the flow of the game, it’s really just a beautiful thing to watch,” said Robert Tadjiki, who has taught at Bend High for 18 years and has headed the Unified program at the school since its inception. “It’s a great way to push students with disabilities into having a nice recreational life into adulthood.”

After winning the state championship, Bend turned its attention to softball. The Lava Bears have three teams and will host the state Unified tournament at Pine Nursery Park on May 11. Bend also plays soccer in the fall.

“We just transition from one sport to the next,” said Tadjiki of the Unified class, which meets during the regular school day and is one of the more popular courses at Bend High.

“We have more partners that want to be in the class than we have space for,” Tadjiki said. “It’s terrific. It’s just this embedded part of our school culture. We’re the largest (Unified program) in the state. It’s pretty remarkable. We’re kind of the model for the state, having so many partners.”

In 2017, Bend was one of four high schools in Oregon named a Special Olympics Unified Champion School for implementing inclusive sports and youth leadership opportunities through the whole school. Today, there are 15 Unified Champion Schools in the state.

Tadjiki said Bend’s Unified program has the backing of the entire school.

Scott Baker, Lava Bears boys basketball coach, fitted the Unified team with retro jerseys. Baseball coach Quinn Clair allowed some of his players to miss practice to participate in the state tournament.

Chavira Grever, president of Bend’s mentor club, has signed to play lacrosse at Alderson Broaddus University in Philippi, West Virginia.

She hopes to start a Unified program at one of the local high schools there.

“I want to still be a part of it,” Chavira Grever said.

— Reporter: 541-383-0307, dwiley@bendbulletin.com