Joseph Wigand never thought volunteering for Special Olympics was out of the ordinary. He grew up in Florida surrounded by Special Olympics athletes as his mom ran a Special Olympics program since before he was born. What he didn’t expect however, was a trip of a lifetime to Abu Dhabi with a Unified Volleyball team coached by him and his wife, all due to his dedication to helping those in need.
From volunteer to Unified partner to coach, Wigand has done it all in Special Olympics, at the young age of 31. In middle school, Wigand was part of one of the very first Unified Sports teams in Broward County. He continued to volunteer throughout high school and when he went off to college, Wigand continued to volunteer for Special Olympics through events and Special Olympics Florida State Games. Upon graduating, Wigand moved to Boston and became involved in Special Olympics Massachusetts, where he was a Unified partner for flag football, basketball, volleyball, and softball.
Joseph Wigand (left) coaching at Volleyball practice at the World Games training Camp at the University of Delaware
When Wigand moved back to Florida, he started teaching at Ridge Community High School and began a Special Olympics Unified program with his wife, Casey. In just four years, the program at Ridge Community High School has grown from a volleyball team with 8 athletes to a program that has 4 sports and has 20 athletes.
“I wanted to continue to volunteer with Special Olympics when my wife and I moved back to Florida, but when I was looking in the area there weren’t a lot of teams that were close to me. So, we decided to create our own Unified team at Ridge Community High School where we teach,” Wigand said.
Yatziri Rodriguez, a Unified partner, has been on the Ridge Community High School Unified volleyball team for four years now. Originally Rodriguez came out to volunteer with equipment, but when the team needed Unified partners both Coach Joseph and Casey Wigand convinced her to play for the team, and she hasn’t looked back since.
“Our Special Olympics team is unlike any other team I have been on before. Since being part of Special Olympics I have learned so much from my teammates as well as our coaches. They teach us that one bad game or practice shouldn’t bring us down but to pick our heads up,” Rodriguez said.
Athletes from the Ridge Community High School Unified Volleyball team take a break to pose for the camera
Not only does the comradery of her team keep Rodriguez motivated, but also the mission of playing Unified and showing the abilities of Special Olympics athletes and not their disabilities.
“When people say special needs, they think, oh poor things. Now I see the athletes and it is eye opening. The athletes have plans and goals they want to fill. They want to get a job after high school, go to college or a transition program, to get their driver’s license. They are more than capable, and the last thing you should do is underestimate them,” Rodriguez said.
Dedicated to promoting social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences, Unified Sports joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. It was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding.
“When we started the Unified program here at Ridge Community High School, we wanted to promote inclusion and recognition of our ESE students. It is important for them to gain awareness by the kids not contained in ESE classes and being able to show what they are capable of,” said Casey Wigand.
Ridge Community High School Unified Volleyball team picture
Wigand and his wife, Casey, will be traveling with their Unified Volleyball team to Abu Dhabi in March. Their Unified team consists of 10 players with and without intellectual disabilities who will represent Special Olympics USA while competing in Abu Dhabi against other Unified volleyball teams from around the world.
Joseph Wigand has been to two Special Olympics USA Games in the past as a coach in 2006 and 2014, traveling to Iowa and Nebraska, but has never been to a Special Olympics World Games, let alone outside of the country.
“This will be an exciting first for me, traveling to the World Games in Abu Dhabi. I am also looking forward to the competition that we will see over there. We will be getting to compete against some of the best teams in the world and get to see how everyone else does their Unified programs,” Wigand said.
The Ridge Community High School Unified volleyball team has made many memories in just the few short years it has been present, but the team is looking forward to making many new memories over seas playing for their country.
“One of my other favorite moments upon finding out that we were selected to go to World Games, I called everyone. And the first thing I asked each of the athletes was do they have a passport. To hear their reactions was great,” Wigand said.
For almost 20 years, Special Olympics has offered sports teams that blend people with and without intellectual disabilities, and this is a model that encourages sports and fun, and which also gets people together to learn more about one other.
Special Olympics Unified Sports has changed Wigand’s life and he hopes others will get involved in the experience.
“Do it. You will never regret seeing the growth from watching the athletes and Unified partners interacting. The growth that I have seen from each of my students that participate is amazing. When I started, I had a student who had difficulties at home. Now, he is going to Abu Dhabi and giving interviews to the school board on his experiences in Special Olympics.”