Playing basketball games at Cassell Coliseum represents the thrill of a lifetime for many Virginia Tech student-athletes, but showing off basketball skills inside the venerable building means even more to another group of individuals.

“It’s very nice,” Ben Norris said. “I love that they actually let us do that.”

Norris was one of approximately 150 Special Olympics athletes from Southwest Virginia who competed on unified teams at a regional tournament Feb. 5 at Cassell Coliseum. The tournament featured many of the same elements the Hokies experience on their game days — fans in the stands cheering loudly, HokieVision camera crews catching the action for display on the video scoreboards, and even the playing of “Enter Sandman.”

The event encompasses a large piece of the long-lasting partnership between Virginia Tech and Special Olympics. That partnership has existed for more than three decades, and so far, it’s been nothing but net.

The partnership extends beyond the basketball court, too, to sports such as bocce, bowling, and flag football. Various groups on campus volunteer their time for Special Olympics, including the Virginia Tech Police Department, which holds a hot dog luncheon each spring to raise money for the organization, and Phi Sigma Kappa, a fraternity that hosts a variety of events to raise awareness and funds for Special Olympics.

“It's not about seeing the disabilities, it's about seeing the abilities,” said Sarah Nugent, a sophomore from Richmond who works in university’s Recreational Sports office and serves on the Unified Leadership Council, a group of students and university staff members who help oversee the leagues. “I think that having that relationship between Special Olympics and Virginia Tech puts an emphasis on those abilities and just shines a light on the talents and capabilities that every person has offer. I think Virginia Tech does a really good job of trying to show that to everybody else and be a role model.”

Special Olympics athletes competing at basketball tournament
More than 150 athletes participated in a Special Olympics regional tournament held at Cassell Coliseum in early February. Virginia Tech Athletics photo

Special Olympics certainly agrees. In early February, the organization awarded Virginia Tech national banner recognition for its efforts to provide inclusive sports for people with and without disabilities. The university, a Special Olympics Unified Champion School, earned the honor by meeting 10 Special Olympics national standards of excellence in the areas of inclusion, advocacy, and respect.

The university offers eight Unified Sports on campus. Unified means the teams feature an equal number of players with and without disabilities, with the purpose of making everyone feel included regardless of ability.

The university received its national recognition banner at an awards presentation during the men’s basketball game against Virginia on Feb. 4 and again at the women’s basketball game on Feb. 12. Virginia Tech became the first university in Virginia to receive this honor.

“It was a unique experience to watch the athletes get so excited to raise that banner and go on court at halftime and have ESPN mention them,” said Nicole Verdin ’18, an intern in the Special Olympics Virginia Southwest office while pursuing her master’s degree in reputation management from Virginia Tech. “I think that was the most special part.

“It was a cool opportunity to recognize our partners on campus as well for how much they're dedicating their time. Virginia Tech has been so supportive in all that we've done, and Rec Sports is a huge part of that, so just kind of bringing it all together so that everyone could really see all their work come to fruition was a special, special moment.”

Nugent added, “I think it was super important that a stadium packed full of not only Virginia Tech fans, but UVa fans, too, got to see the impact that a club like Special Olympics can have on a community. Being on the court and seeing the athletes light up and get excited about it was amazing. It’s not really about the banner and the accolades that it brings to this school. It’s about making the athletes feel respected and included.”

Special Olympics athletes huddling during action at Cassell Coliseum
Basketball is one of eight Unified Sports offered by the university. Unified means the teams feature an equal number of players with and without disabilities, with the purpose of making everyone feel included regardless of ability. Virginia Tech Athletics photo

Student volunteers, like Nugent, Verdin when she was pursuing her undergraduate degree in public relations, and James Taufman, a senior from Melville, New York, who graduates this month with a degree in mechanical engineering and serves on the Unified Leadership Council, play pivotal roles in this partnership. Their work ethic allows Virginia Tech to extend the opportunities for partnering with Special Olympics, and more importantly, their enthusiasm helps to create the memorable experiences for athletes.

A lot of students volunteer because of a personal connection to Special Olympics. For example, Verdin has a cousin with Down syndrome, and Taufman’s uncle also has Down syndrome, and both play sports.  

“My uncle is an athlete in New York and he loves that, so I saw how much joy it brought him,” Taufman said. “When I had the opportunity to do it here, I stepped forward and wanted to make someone in the NRV have that same experience that he has.

“It's so personal when you volunteer somewhere. … If you volunteer your time, sometimes you don't see what the end product is, but the end product with Special Olympics or who I'm helping has a name, and I'm friends with them, so it doesn't even feel like volunteering.”

Verdin, who has been volunteering with Special Olympics since she was a kid, relayed a similar sentiment.

“The inclusivity component is a huge part of it for me,” she said. “With sports and Special Olympics, we’re outreaching into our communities, and we’re providing a safe space where people can build partnerships and friendships and support one another — spaces they might not normally have had.”

Therein lies the main benefit of the partnership. Virginia Tech and Special Olympics often provide experiences that few athletes ever get to experience.

Just ask Norris, who started working in dining services on campus in 2010 and currently works in the athletics department. He got involved with Special Olympics starting in 2001 and has been playing in the basketball tournament since he moved from Alexandria, Virginia to Blacksburg in 2006.

“It’s very nice and a lot of fun,” he said. “I love that they actually let us do that.”

That sentiment is almost certainly one that would be echoed by many.

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