Special Olympics Athletes Take to the Soccer Field

By Lauren Wanko

Together they’ve trained since August. Team Florida Unified Soccer is ready for the field at the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games.

“I’m both excited and focused because I want to try to do my best on the field,” said Parker Nelson.

When his coach asked Garrett Jacobs what he was going to do when the ball got passed to him, he said, “Hey score goal!”

In Unified Soccer, three athletes play with two unified partners on the field.

“Unified partners are typical peers who do not have intellectual disabilities so they are playing with athletes that do have intellectual disabilities,” explained Coach Silvia Haas. “When an athlete gets an opportunity to play with a competitor that is on equal or higher playing level, it picks up their game.”

It’s certainly picked up Team Florida’s game. Ten years ago, they were a Division 4. They moved up to Division 2 for the 2010 USA Games in Nebraska as a unified team. And here in Jersey, Team Florida is proud to be Division 1.

“Seeing the joy on their faces and how much fun they have playing with us is what makes it all worth it,” said Team Florida Unified Partner Daniel Huertas.

“To see my partners embrace their teammates and to look at them and say, ‘You don’t have a disability, you have an ability and let’s show everyone your ability,’ just makes me so proud and that’s what this is all about,” said Haas.

There are four soccer games happening on four fields all at the same time at Mercer County Park. Today is the first day of medal-round competition and you can feel the excitement on the field.

Team Pennsylvania’s Loretta Claiborne is 60 years old.

“It feels great! I just want to tell the United States to keep moving. To be 60, going on 61 years old, and out running amongst the youngsters, it’s awesome!” she said.

Fifty-two-year-old Dennis Thompson is the oldest member of Team Southern California.

“I’m so excited to be in Jersey,” he said.

We caught up with Team Pennsylvania after their game.

Things got off to a shaky start for the team this week.

“I said to my team members when one of them said we’re losing, I said, ‘No God didn’t make no losers. I’m not a loser and you’re not a loser. We’re gonna do this,'” relayed Claiborne.

And together, they did.

“We won! It’s great to be a winner!” said Marshal Geesua.

“We’re all winners. Whether we win or not, it’s about being here,” said Claiborne.

Team Pennsylvania and Team Florida will be back on the field tomorrow.