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Unified in their love of bowling: Johnson County rolls out new Special Olympics team

·4 min read

A new sport has rolled onto the scene for Kansas high schools. Unified Bowling, a Special Olympics event that pairs students who have intellectual disabilities with students who do not, recently finished up its first season.

Each team has four students who rotate frames throughout the game, alternating between the two groups of students. The total score at the end of the 10 frames is the team score. Schools can have multiple teams of four.

Held at Olathe’s Mission Bowl, the state championship featured 15 teams, about half of them from the Kansas City area. The top Johnson County team was Olathe East, which took third place.

The sport itself is not new, but its acceptance as an official Kansas State High School Athletic Association (KSHSAA) sport is. Shawnee Mission South’s athletic director, John Johnson, was a very vocal supporter of the move and helped guide proponents through the administrative red tape.

“Virtually every educator I know is committed to the concepts of inclusion. We already had unified sports at Shawnee Mission South. We had unified bocce, soccer, basketball,” Johnson said. “The next step was to try to create an infrastructure with KSHSAA so they would endorse it as a sport.

“It’s hard to say no when you’re doing the right thing. Every step of the way, we had the right people say yes.”

Working with Special Olympics representatives, they decided to try bowling first, because Nebraska had already done it, so it was easier to follow an already-established blueprint.

Johnson said he’s seen three new sports approved by KSHSAA in his 17 years as athletic director at South. To get approval, they needed 24 schools to put up teams. This season, 29 schools competed for the whole season of unified bowling.

They had a lot of cooperation from local bowling alleys such as Park Lanes and Mission Bowl, according to Johnson.

The 14 players for South’s team came from the school’s personal life skills class. As with the bowling team, the class pairs students who have special needs with those who don’t.

Katelyn Colwell, a junior at South, is a student teacher in the class and a member of the bowling team. In the future, she’d like to be a special education teacher.

She was already competing in basketball, softball and track.

“I was like, ‘Why not add another sport I’ve never done before, and experience it for the first time like the rest of the students I work with?’” Katelyn said.

Other members of the South team who competed at the state level are Rosemary Derr, Libby Dugan and Alex Dvorak. The team placed 12th at the competition.

Sara Simpson, who teaches special ed classes at South and coaches the team alongside Tonya Cossairt, is pleased with how the season has gone.

“We have had so much fun this season; probably more fun than any of us anticipated having,” Simpson said. “The biggest benefit I’ve seen, as someone who teaches social skills to people who have intellectual or developmental disabilities, is the growth of perseverance.

“The idea that your team is counting on you, and you can’t just quit because you don’t feel like it, has been instrumental in growing skills that will benefit these students for the rest of their lives.”

All of the students have a voice on the team.

“All the members of our team have an appreciation for what each of them brings to the table. We’re definitely not in a situation where our students who do not have intellectual disabilities are in charge,” Simpson said. “Yesterday, Libby Dugan’s the one who carried our team. We all have good days and bad days, and we take care of each other.”

And don’t think it isn’t competitive just because the sport is from Special Olympics.

“The most challenging part was learning ourselves and through the students how to lose gracefully and overcome our competitive spirit, because all of us are super competitive,” Katelyn said. “It might take a bit longer for them to understand, (but) it is for sure a sport, and it should be taken as seriously as every other sport.”

Johnson agreed.

“We wanted it to be competitive. It’s not like it’s just a participation sport,” he said.

Right now, bowling is the only unified sport recognized at the Kansas state high school level, although schools such as South individually host other unified sports.

“Unified bowling is the first of many sports we’re hoping KSHSAA will recognize,” Simpson said. “We would love to, in the future, offer four seasons of athletics.”

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