Unified Soccer

New Soccer Program Integrates Special-Ed Students

Jamie Walker, staff reporter

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Unified soccer players conduct warm-up drills on the Shorewood softball field.

Areeya Tipyasothi
Unified soccer players conduct warm-up drills on the Shorewood softball field.

The shrillness of a referee’s whistle and the tapping of laces on soccer balls may represent something greater in these next few months.

This spring sports season, a program called Unified Soccer will start at Shorewood, Shorecrest and Shoreline Community College. The sport is dedicated to more than just athletic aptitude: each team strives to unite students from the special education and regular education departments through acts of selfless teamwork.

Teams comprised of five special education students referred to as ‘athletes’ and five regular education ‘partners’. All players on the 10-person squad not only practice together twice a week, but rally onto the field for 20 minute games.

Athletes are able to have the experiences that come with

a high school sport, while forming and strengthening bonds with their peers. Partners may have even more changing experiences, as they realize the true fun and competitive natures of their athlete friends.

The Unified Soccer program was brought to Washington in 2011, when the Special Olympics teamed up with the Seattle Sounders FC. They decided to create a twist on the classic sport in hopes of making an impact in the lives of many.

Several Seattle schools are veterans to this program, and will likely be facing off against Shorewood’s team in the upcoming season.

Shorewood Unified Soccer coach Eric Solbakken, recently appointed as the head freshman football coach, had a dedicated football season of hard work. When the new soccer program was brought to his attention, his interest was instantly sparked.

With six years of coaching under his belt, he has grown an immense passion for sports and patience that might elevate the team to another level. As he incorporates his coaching philosophy into the new soccer team, he hopes that everyone involved will learn that giving their all allows them to be the true winner.

“My philosophy is to give nothing less than your best. Then, the scoreboard will take care of itself,” he said.  “I think that focusing on the end result is overly stressful and giving nothing but your best while working as a team is where it really pays off.”

This, however, doesn’t mean that the new team isn’t going to also be competitive. Unified Soccer has a district competition in the Seattle area and also an end-of-the-year state competition.

Junior James Bender, who is a partner on the team, has nothing but positive words about the experience.  “Working with the athletes is great. Everyone is so friendly and extremely nice to me,” he said. “They always work to outdo do me which is fun – being playfully competitive with them.”

    This competitive spirit may help with one of Solbakken’s main goals: having Unified Sports to be both seen and treated as seriously as the other spring sports.

Partners and athletes alike will be training vigorously on their possible road to state season, and he hopes that Shorewood will realize this. Having such exposure would not only raise awareness for those with special needs, but make our school as inclusive as possible.

“I want this to generate excitement in the school and give the athletes a sense of belonging, more so than there already is. There’s a great connection between the athletes and us here, ” said Solbakken.

      This is why Unified Soccer stands for so much more than just soccer: a sense of belonging is invaluable.

Unified Soccer gives us opportunities that we might not have had: to play a high school sport, to connect and make friends from different backgrounds, and to become the unified school that we all hope to be.

Solbakken’s final goal is one that we can all share and support. “My mission is giving the athletes and partners an experience that they can talk about with friends and family for the next 50 years,” he said. “That’s my first priority: giving everyone the experience of a lifetime.”

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Unified Soccer