Guest Blog Post: “Unified Sports Changed My Life”
By PJ Benesh, Student and Unified Partner at Horseheads High School
Basketball had always been a huge part of my life ever since I was little, and it had been my favorite sport up into high school. I was captain of the team my sophomore year, but the game was just not as fun as it once was. My sisters were both all-stars on the varsity team, and I felt I had to live up to their legacy. The pressure I put on myself was unhealthy: I felt as if I couldn’t make mistakes, and that ruined the game I once loved. I finished my sophomore basketball season and had no fun at all. I did not see the purpose of playing anymore, and I was not getting any fulfillment or satisfaction from playing on the team.
My Spanish teacher approached me after my sophomore basketball season, asking if I had ever thought about playing Unified basketball. Unified Sports joins people with intellectual or physical disabilities (called Athletes), and people without disabilities (called Partners), on the same team. The main goal of Unified Sports is to build friendships, encourage inclusivity, and achieve a new level of understanding. I actually had thought about it before, but there was a rule that said I couldn’t play Unified if I played basketball for the school. So, I finally decided it was time for me to quit and I believe it changed my life.
Quitting basketball was not easy. I received a lot of flack from the coaches and my friends who were on the team. It was not a popular or traditional decision, but it was the right one for me. Thankfully, my parents fully supported it, and I was excited to finally be able to play Unified basketball my junior year.
Walking into my first Unified practice, I did not know what to expect. I was nervous because I had never done anything like that before. I awkwardly introduced myself to a few of the Unified Athletes, but after the first day, it already seemed like we were becoming a family. We won a lot of games, but we also had the most fun I’ve ever had playing basketball. All the stress I used to feel melted away when I played with them. Seeing the Athletes score their first points of the season and then dance down the whole court with the biggest smiles on their faces are some of my favorite basketball memories. We even won the championship that year, but even if we had lost that game, I don’t think it would have affected the team. They were just excited to be out there together.
Being on that team made me realize how grateful I was to experience the team aspect of sports, but it was the Athlete’s first time being on a team. It was their first time they could wear a jersey that read “Horseheads” on the front. It was their first time they could go on a bus to an away game. And it was their first time they could say they were on a Varsity sports team. I was just fortunate enough to be able to experience that with them.
Unified sports changed my life, my outlook, and perspective. It opened my eyes to how much more there is to sports than winning and losing. Going to basketball practice used to feel like a chore to me but seeing this experience through their eyes made me realize not to take things for granted. The Athletes on the team thought that I was there to help them, but they do not know how much they have helped me.
If your school doesn’t have Unified Sports, it should! Learn more here.