As the Vermont Unified basketball team – made up of athletes from Shelburne, Williston, Hinesburg and St. George – made its way to Seattle to compete in the Special Olympics USA Games, coach Peter Booth had no idea what to expect.
It turns out, the organizers didn’t either.
After getting a chance to watch the Green Mountain State team in action, Special Olympics officials moved the Vermont team up a division and into a last-minute semifinal appearance.
“At 12:30 at night we got an email saying we’ve moved you into Division I and you have a game tomorrow at 9:15 a.m.,” Booth said. “The next morning we got everybody up at 7 a.m., said ‘Good news, we got moved up a division; bad news, we have a game in an hour and a half.’”
The team responded, winning their semifinal matchup over Rhode Island 37-21. The Vermont group then stepped up again, topping Connecticut 38-29 to win the gold medal in Division I Interscholastic Unified Basketball.
“We were just so thrilled,” said Sue Minter, president and CEO of Special Olympics Vermont. “To be able to come here and beat some of the powerhouses that we have heard about for all these years, we are just so proud.”
Minter and Special Olympics Vermont put together the Vermont delegation to the games, the smallest in the competition. Including the 10 basketball players, Vermont sent a total of 19 athletes, including some in track and swimming events, to the competition, which featured 4,000 athletes and coaches.
“As long as we get more awareness, we can continue to grow,” Minter said. “It is about using the power of sport to leverage inclusion. Greater inclusion and respect is what our world needs. I hope that these athletes continue to champion our sport around the state.”
For Booth and his Unified basketball team, who all attend Champlain Valley Union High School and play for the Redhawks’ unified basketball team, it was a culmination of the culture that the program has been building.
“At CVU, we have always viewed all of our unified sports as a means to end, with the end being the inclusion of all students,” Booth said. “We always want to win, obviously, but the way we always approach games and practices is around inclusion. More important than the win is the team.
“That foundation, when we ended up in the tournament, we didn’t need to change. We just remained who we are.”
The success of the team also relies heavily on the team’s partners, or players without disabilities, who work with the Special Olympics players on the team.
“To see very high-level basketball players, to see them lead by facilitating play,” Minter said of team’s partners, who all play varsity basketball for CVU, “They made the unselfish pass to make sure our Special Olympics athletes were shooting and scoring. It takes a lot of character and makes our Vermont team so special.”
With the team’s partners facilitating, Vermont’s Special Olympics athletes scored 28 of the team’s 38 points in the final game.
And those partners made sure the Special Olympic athletes were on the court to celebrate the win. Booth described the scene when the team was up by 10 with a minute left on the clock, as the Vermont players realized that they were going to win the gold medal.
“We have one player, Erin Watson, who is shorter and is not one of our best basketball players, who we knew wouldn’t get a ton of playing time,” Booth said. “With one minute to go, Paul Keen ran to the bench and said ‘Get Erin in! We’ve got to get Erin in!’ All of the kids played really unselfishly.”
With that win, Vermont and its athletes brought home gold medals.
“When our students come back, they will have some celebrity status,” Booth said. “These kids will definitely be celebrated when they come back in September.”