Feature: MIAC partnership with Special Olympics continues to grow

Feature: MIAC partnership with Special Olympics continues to grow

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – On Aug. 1, 2011, NCAA Division III officially launched a partnership with Special Olympics to bring together two like-minded associations that aim to improve the lives of their participants through the values learned by participating in athletics. It's safe to say that partnership continues to be a rousing success, and the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) and its 13 schools have experienced the benefits first-hand.

The MIAC fully embraced the partnership from the start, but in recent years a truly special bond has formed between the conference, its schools and Special Olympics Minnesota. The result of that camaraderie is a mutually-beneficial partnership that has seen both groups put a lot in, but get even more out.

"Working with Special Olympics is encouraged through a partnership with NCAA Division III, and our student-athletes have embraced this opportunity," said MIAC Executive Director Dan McKane. "I see the positive connections that have resulted. Our student-athletes get as much, if not more, out of working with the Special Olympians. It is such a wonderful relationship that has been developed across all of our campuses and with Special Olympics."

When the partnership was first developed, the interactions between college student-athletes and their local Special Olympics chapters mainly came in two forms – volunteering at local, regional and state Special Olympics competitions, and fundraising efforts to benefit Special Olympics – such as the Polar Plunge or other on-campus charity events.

However, an outstanding trend has emerged in the MIAC – the student-athletes started working closer with Special Olympics Minnesota staff and thinking outside the box to take the partnership to the next level. Some MIAC schools developed unique events, such as bean bag tournaments or sports clinics, to put fun twists on the ways they can partner up and interact. Others dove in to the "Unified Sports" trend, which pairs up college student-athletes with Special Olympians to play on the same team and build a deeper bond through teamwork and sportsmanship. They found ways to recognize and honor Special Olympics on their campuses, and opened their campuses' doors to Special Olympics events of all kinds.

The first-ever MIAC Special Olympics Unified Basketball 
Tournament was held at Macalester in April 2016.
(Photo by Matt Higgins, MIAC) 

The conference has even come together as a whole to get in on the fun. In 2016, the MIAC held the first-ever MIAC Special Olympics Unified Basketball Tournament, which was believed to be the first conference-wide Unified tournament in the nation. The encore event is already in the works for April 9, 2017, at Macalester College, with eight different MIAC schools coming together to join forces with Special Olympics Minnesota in a fun, exciting tournament that celebrates all that is right with the partnership.

"The increased involvement with MIAC colleges over the past year has been great to see," said Devin Kaasa, college partnerships and competition manager at Special Olympics Minnesota. "We're seeing more students at events on campus, volunteering and others stepping up to become more involved with Special Olympics Minnesota."

Though none of these efforts were done to gain recognition, the MIAC was twice honored in 2016 for its efforts, validating the hard work of its philanthropic student-athletes. The conference was nominated for – and won – the NCAA Special Olympics Spotlight Poll for its work with the Unified Basketball Tournament, which included a $500 prize that will be used to enhance the 2017 event. The MIAC as a whole was also greatly honored in September 2016 with an Outstanding Service Award at the Special Olympics Minnesota Distinguished Service Awards ceremony.

The Special Olympics partnership has rooted itself deeply on most of the MIAC's 13 campuses. Geography and a lack of local Special Olympics clubs makes it difficult for all conference schools to be involved, and those who aren't have put on some outstanding community service events to benefit their campus and community in other important areas. However, the amount of Special Olympics projects taken on by a majority of the conference is staggering and certainly worthy of recognition.  

Augsburg has been one of the MIAC's leaders in working with Special Olympics, which culminated with Special Olympics Minnesota Week on the Augsburg campus in January. The Auggies held a Unified bean bag tournament and had Special Olympics on campus throughout the week for ceremonial tip-offs and puck drops at Augsburg basketball and hockey games. They also had Polar Plunge and Respect Campaign – an initiative to end use of the "r-word" – tables staffed throughout the week. Augsburg also held a Unified Basketball Tournament with Auggie Compass that included more than 80 junior student-athletes and 50 Special Olympics Minnesota Athletes. The Augsburg football team – the entire team – volunteered at the State Fall Games in August, and the Auggies will once again field a team for the MIAC Unified Basketball Tournament in April.

Augsburg and Hamline Unified basketball teams pose for a photo
after their January 2017 rivalry game at Augsburg College.
 (Photo courtesy of Don Stoner, Augsburg College)

It's hard to mention Augsburg's involvement without also bringing up Hamline, as the two are in their second year of a Unified Rivalry Series. The two Twin Cities rivals have set up a series where they team up with Special Olympians for three competitions each year – flag football, basketball and softball – with the winner retaining "The Hammer" rivalry trophy, which is a replica of the same trophy traded by the Auggie and Piper football teams each season.

"Hamline and Augsburg-students have gone above and beyond to give these games an atmosphere similar to a college game," Kaasa said. "Last month, Hamline bussed students [to Augsburg's campus] to fill the stands, and Augsburg students turned out in big numbers to put more than 150 people in the stands for the Unified basketball game."

In addition to its participation in the rivalry series with Augsburg, Hamline held its third-annual Unified Bean Bag Tournament. The Pipers were honored with a $500 prize last year for winning the NCAA Special Olympics Spotlight Poll, and that money is being used to throw a Unified Party for the Pipers and their Special Olympics friends at a bowling alley. Hamline will also participate in the MIAC Unified Basketball Tournament in April.

Bethel has had a busy year with Special Olympics and another big event on the horizon. The Royals hosted a Unified Kickball Tournament in the Fall, and a Respect Campaign at a Bethel football game. Monday (Feb. 13), the Royals will host a Unified Basketball Tournament that will include 13 or 14 middle school-aged Unified teams. There will be games played on three different courts for four hours, and the big event will conclude with a free-throw contest sponsored by Bethel's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC).

Gustavus is heavily involved with Special Olympics – particularly when it comes to hosting events and competitions – including flag football, basketball, aquatics and track and field. The Gusties are also planning to host a Respect Campaign on March 1. Gustavus senior swimmer Adam Peters – a member of MIAC SAAC – has been very hands-on with the aquatics event along with the Gustie swimming and diving teams, and praised the work of his fellow Gustavus student-athletes for their involvement in all these big events.

The Gustavus swimming and diving team volunteering at last 
year's Special Olympics aquatics event on the Gusties' campus.
(Photo courtesy of Adam Peters, Gustavus Adolhpus College) 

"We get about 40 swimmers and the coaches from team to completely run the meet from beginning to end," Peters said. "It is a wonderful event that has been going on for many years … As for the other events, every sports team on campus is heavily involved with the other events and everyone gives a hand to help those events run smoothly."

Macalester went above and beyond a year ago as hosts of the MIAC's first-ever conference wide Unified Basketball Tournament, and the Scots enjoyed having the event on campus so much that they volunteered their Leonard Center Fieldhouse to house the tournament again in 2017. Scots student-athletes helped with all aspects of running the tournament, including setup, takedown, signage, and anything else needed throughout the event.

In addition, Macalester also hosts "Young Athlete" classes that serve as a first step into the world of athletics for area youth (ages 2-to-7) who hope to join Special Olympics when they reach the minimum age requirement of 8 years old. Macalester men's basketball student-athlete Jordan Black-Mathews – a member of MIAC SAAC – is heavily involved with both hosting the Unified Basketball Tournament and the Young Athlete program and described the benefits of the classes.

"We had a six-week Young Athletes class last semester, and we will be having another class this spring starting in March," Black-Mathews said. "The class usually starts with basic movements like running, catching, and identification of objects. Toward the end of the classes we introduce different sports to the kids like basketball, hockey, and baseball. The classes are all very rewarding for the kids and the volunteers, and it is something we want to continue for a while at Macalester."

St. Olaf has several big Special Olympics event on its calendar. The Oles will host both a Regional Basketball Tournament and a Unified Bean Bag Tournament for Special Olympians and St. Olaf student-athletes on its campus in Northfield, Minn. Ole men's hockey players volunteered at state poly hockey, and the Oles will also field a team for the MIAC Unified Basketball Tournament in April.

The enthusiasm for the Special Olympics partnership has been
contagious around the MIAC and events on campuses.
 (Photo courtesy of Don Stoner, Augsburg College)

St. Thomas will open the doors of its athletic facilities to Special Olympians from around the state when it hosts the 2017 Spring Games March 24-26 in St. Paul, Minn. The Tommies are also in the planning stages of developing a hockey camp for Special Olympics athletes, which would include stations and drills and would end with a Unified scrimmage. UST will also send a team to the MIAC Unified Basketball Tournament again this season.

St. Catherine created a Special Olympics Committee within its SAAC, sent volunteers to the State Bowling Competition, and will field a team for the MIAC Unified Basketball Tournament. Carleton will also participate in the MIAC's Unified tournament for the second-straight season, and Saint Benedict has collected donations to benefit Special Olympics at Blazer athletic events. Concordia has been extremely involved with Special Olympics North Dakota in nearby Fargo, N.D., and was awarded with the Outstanding Area Organization Award in November 2015. The MIAC has also involved Special Olympians in its championship events, including throwing out a ceremonial first pitch at the MIAC Baseball Playoffs. 

The list of ways MIAC student-athletes are involved with Special Olympics is long, and growing longer by the day. The short-term benefits are obvious – MIAC student-athletes give back to their communities and use athletics to create unforgettable experiences for Special Olympics athletes, and they even develop bonds and friendships that evolve beyond these events and competitions. The lives of all involved are immeasurably enriched.

However, the long-term benefits are equally important. The initiative taken by MIAC student-athletes to really own this partnership and constantly push the boundaries in new and exciting directions displays a commitment and an investment beyond what is expected. The lasting impact will equip today's MIAC student-athletes to continue making a difference in their communities long after their college days have ended. The result will be a better, more inclusive world for everyone and, in the sports world, that's called a win.  

"Through the partnership with the MIAC and having these colleges get more involved, the idea is to get more institutions to be a part of the Unified movement and for the students to continue on with Special Olympics throughout their time in college," Kaasa said. "Hopefully when they graduate, they continue to be involved in their communities."

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