Special Olympics Florida

The power of Unified and the “beautiful game”

The Orlando City SC Unified team with the Columbus Crew SC Unified team after the last home game for Orlando City SC

Colby Kitner, a 16-year-old student-athlete, was intrigued when his soccer coach, Scott Carvale, asked him to join the Olympia High School Unified team and immediately said yes. Little did Kitner know he would be setting out to play Unified with the Orlando City Soccer Club against different Major League Soccer teams across the country.

Orlando City SC is among several Major League Soccer clubs connecting with local Special Olympics chapters to host exchange games in their venues, giving athletes with and without intellectual disabilities a unique opportunity to shine under the stadium lights.

This year Orlando City SC paired up with the Olympia High School Unified team to play exchange matches against the Columbus Crew SC and D.C. United. Unified matches were scheduled in conjunction with MLS club matches, providing MLS fans for the fifth year in a row an opportunity to witness first-hand the talents and abilities of Special Olympics athletes and Unified partners.

Kitner (center) before match against Columbus Crew

Kitner and his teammates got to travel to D.C. United’s stadium in August as well as play a home game at the Orlando City stadium against the Columbus Crew SC in October. Traveling and playing with his Unified teammates opened Kitner’s eyes to the world of Unified and Special Olympics.

“I’ve personally loved every moment of my work with the Unified team because it brings a lot of joy to the athletes and has changed my life. It has changed a lot of my views and made me realize that nothing can get in the way of someone who truly has a goal,” said Kitner.

The Olympia High School Unified team was able to personally meet the Orlando City SC team as well as players of the Columbus Crew SC and D.C. United during this past Major League Soccer season. Kitner was also selected to play in the 5th annual Special Olympics Unified Sports All-Star Soccer Showcase that was part of the 2018 MLS All-Star Game hosted in Atlanta. Kitner and teammate, Freddrick Johnson, represented Orlando City SC, and competed against Unified players representing 23 MLS clubs.

Kitner (left) with teammate Freddrick Johnson (right) and their coach.

“It was really cool to be able to play in the stadium and experience a professional athlete environment,” said Kitner.

But Kitner’s most memorable moments didn’t come from meeting professional athletes or traveling to different stadiums – it came from the moments he got to experience with his teammates and the other Unified teams. From going out to dinner with other Unified players to joking around with teammates after matches, Kitner made memories to last a lifetime.

“One of my most memorable moments was actually letting the Columbus Crew SC Unified player score a goal on us in the Unified match. It was an incredible moment for that athlete and he had been practicing a celebration for weeks. Their team came up to me and thanked me for letting him score and they were just telling me how happy he was,” said Kitner.

Kitner didn’t know where playing Unified would take him, but he’s now hooked and plans to keep playing Unified in the future for his high school, and hopes more people will join.

“Unified sports is an incredibly fun thing to do and it’s not only benefiting the athletes but also helping yourself become a better person.”

Learn more about the Special Olympics Unified Sports Exchange Program.