Special Olympics Florida

Jack Gourlay and Samantha Salonen represent Special Olympics Florida as part of MLS All-Star week

Jack Gourlay and Samantha Salonen (Photos by Mark Thor)

Special Olympics athlete Jack Gourlay and Unified partner Samantha Salonen from Special Olympics Florida representing Orlando City Soccer Club traveled to Orlando to participate in the 6th Annual Special Olympics Unified Sports All-Star Soccer Match, presented by MLS WORKS, Major League Soccer’s social responsibility platform, and ESPN, as part of MLS All-Star week.

Special Olympics Unified Sports teams, comprised of individuals with intellectual disabilities (Special Olympics athletes) and without intellectual disabilities (Unified partners), representing 22 MLS Clubs, competed in an East versus West, 11 vs. 11 match on Wednesday, July 31, at ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Florida. Each team was outfitted in official kits provided by adidas.

“I’ve been dreaming of this since I was little. I always wanted to be a futbol player,” said Jack Gourlay.  He has a speech impairment. Special Olympics Florida President and CEO Sherry Wheelock said Gourlay was almost non-verbal when he started with the MLS Works Special Olympics Soccer Exchange Program, but that changed after he traveled to Chicago to play in an exchange game.

“My understanding from his mother is that he had not really been verbal prior to that,” Wheelock said. “When he came back his mom said he never stopped talking. So it’s just that experience… just being around all this different group of people, learning, the stimulation from being on his own, [being] independent, he came back much more verbal than when he left.”

After a hard-fought match, the Eastern Conference emerged victorious, defeating the Western Conference 2-1. MLS Great Cobi Jones coached the Western Conference, while MLS Great and Oguchi Onyewu lead the Eastern Conference. Orlando-area athlete Jack Gourlay scored both goals for the East in front of his home crowd. Unified partner, Weston Liddle of Utah, scored a late goal for the West. Full player rosters for each team can be viewed here.

“Once again, the Special Olympics Unified Sports Soccer match was a highlight of MLS All-Star week” said Jan Greenberg Mirman, Vice President, Social Responsibility, Major League Soccer. “In partnership with ESPN and Special Olympics, MLS and its clubs are proud to provide Unified soccer teams with a platform to show off their talents, while promoting an environment where all are welcome.”

“As the Global Presenting Sponsor of Special Olympics Unified Sports, we believe in using the power of sports to foster social inclusion,” said Kevin Martinez, vice president of ESPN Corporate Citizenship. “We’re proud to team up with MLS to support the Special Olympics Unified Sports All-Star Soccer Match, and congratulate all of the athletes on a terrific match.”

In addition to playing in the Special Olympics All-Star Soccer Match, Special Olympics athletes and Unified partners enjoyed a day at Walt Disney World and were recognized on-field prior to the 2019 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target.

The Unified Sports All-Star Soccer Match is part of the season-long Special Olympics Unified Soccer Exchange program that provides opportunities for Unified soccer teams to participate in a first-team MLS experience. Unified soccer teams travel to MLS markets to compete in home and away exhibition matches scheduled in conjunction with MLS first-team matches, and receive unique experiences throughout the season, such as signing days, jersey unveils, buddy programs with MLS first-team players, and gameday recognition. The Unified Soccer Exchange program not only provides Special Olympics athletes with top-level training and competitive experiences, but also excellent life experiences they might not otherwise engage in.

MLS fans were able to visit the #PlayUnifiedMLS tent at MLS Soccer Celebration presented by Tide to take the Inclusion Pledge and “High Five for Inclusion” to help raise awareness for Special Olympics Unified Sports and to show their commitment of overcoming the fear of difference and replacing it with the power of inclusion. Fans anywhere can still take the Inclusion Pledge here.