These last couple of weeks have brought some of the most amazing experiences of my life. I was given the opportunity to be a part of the Orlando City Soccer Club Special Olympics Unified team, and I was selected, alongside my teammate Cesar Aponte, to represent Orlando City in the MLS Works/Special Olympics Unified Sports All-Star Soccer Match. This experience included being flown out to both San Jose and Chicago, fully decked out in Orlando City gear, to compete with partners and athletes representing different delegations from all around the country.
As part of this exchange program, Major League Soccer (MLS) and Special Olympics Unified Sports work together to promote inclusion and acceptance through the power of sports. Unified Sports combines individuals with (referred to as athletes) and without (referred to as partners) intellectual disabilities to create high levels of competition, friendship, and fun.
The opportunities provided to me by Special Olympics Florida were unforgettable. Through Unified Sports, Special Olympics is empowering athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to be exposed to opportunities for both social and athletic growth, and our experiences demonstrated that perfectly.
I have been a part of Unified Sports for three years now, and Cesar has been my teammate since the beginning. We have played softball, basketball, and soccer, but we have a clear favorite: in Cesar’s words, “Soccer is my life.”
Being a multisport athlete allows Cesar and his teammates to be placed in critical thinking situations that require quick decision making. These are often difficult tasks in real life situations for some Special Olympics athletes. Allowing Cesar to face these situations, however, has allowed him to grow tremendously, both as a person and as an athlete. Being able to see his growth firsthand has been awe-inspiring for me and emotional for his family.
The experience that Cesar and I shared in San Jose for the Unified Sports All-Star Game was surreal. The second we arrived at the hotel and greeted our East Coast teammates and West Coast counterparts, we could feel the vibe—this week was not going to revolve around a single soccer match, but around a life-changing experience for a group of very special people.
Some of the activities included being able to meet and take pictures with many of the All-Star players, socializing with and befriending athletes and partners from all around the country, providing community service and transforming a school playground, and playing the beautiful game that brought us all together. The family environment that we created in such a short amount of time allowed for an unbelievable week not only for the athletes, but also for the coaches and partners.
A few weeks later, we traveled to Chicago as part of the MLS Works Exchange Program. The Orlando City Unified team, which was selected by Orlando City and Special Olympics Florida, connected athletes and partners from several teams across Central Florida in order to put together a 7vs7 team that was to compete in an exhibition match against Chicago Fire’s Unified team.
The camaraderie that comes with being part of a team brought together some old friends and teammates with other new faces and past rivals. As new friendships developed and old friendships were strengthened, we became more than just a team, but a Unified family.
The experience was only made better when the Orlando City players, coaches, and staff treated our Unified team as the stars of the weekend. The humility that the players showed towards us was admirable on so many different levels–Kaká met us for breakfast on the morning of the match, the entire team came out to watch our match, and some of the players even waited in the lobby of our hotel and applauded us on the victory. As a partner, it was amazing to see the reaction of the athletes and their ability to embrace these moments like true professionals.
All of these experiences were made possible by Special Olympics Florida and Orlando City. The impact that these opportunities make on the athletes, partners, coaches, and families are too grand to be properly put into words, but whenever I speak to the families of the athletes, there is an understood sense of gratitude. A gratitude toward Special Olympics Florida, Special Olympics Unified Sports, Orlando City, and the MLS Works Unified Exchange Program for providing us with these life-changing experiences. In an interview, Ordray Smith, the unbeatable goalkeeper for our Orlando City Unified team, described the match-day experience by saying, “Honestly, that was the best day ever.” I think Ordray’s words best describe many of our feelings, as days with Special Olympics Unified Sports typically turn into the “best days ever.”
Written by: Danny Huertas, Unified Partner