Academy pg 1 8-2-18


Mya DeShaw, left, Yoriko Hotta, middle, and Olivia Stanikmas on the infield at the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle, Wash.

caption, page 2:

Taking Part
Olivia Stanikmas, left, Mya DeShaw, middle, and Yoriko Hotta take a selfie outside of Husky Stadium in Seattle, Wash. during the Special Olympics USA Games.

Three members of the Unified Sports program at The Woodstock Academy, advisor Yoriko Hotta, student-partner Olivia Stanikmas and athlete Mya DeShaw were asked one question repeatedly at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle.
What sport do you play?
The answer was none.
At least, not at this particular event.
The three were flown by Special Olympics to the event to be part of the Youth Leadership Experience at the Games which took place from June 30 to July 8 at the University of Washington.
“It was the only thing that was a little bit different, that was a little separated, so we had to explain it because it was new this year and everybody said to us, ‘That’s really cool,’” Stanikmas said.
The Woodstock Academy program was singled out to be the Team Connecticut representative for a number of reasons.
In 2016-17, The Academy’s Unified program was the first to be named a State of Connecticut Unified champion of the approximately 30 schools who met the criteria set forth by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference.
It put the program on the CIAC’s radar.
The Unified program also earned kudos for its originality when it created a Unified Club to accommodate an overflow of student partners for the program.
It further enhanced its reputation when the Unified music class at The Academy and the school’s choral groups put together a video to the John Lennon song, “Imagine,” using sign language.
The CIAC recommended to Special Olympics that The Woodstock Academy program be allowed to attend the Games as part of the inaugural Youth Leadership Experience.
“We didn’t really know what we were going to be doing until we got there,” Stanikmas said.
What they were expected to do was all contained in a really “neat” binder, according to Stanikmas, but following it was another story.
“It was a really tough schedule,” Hotta said. “The campus of the University of Washington was so hilly and we did more than 10 miles a day, power-walking. (Olivia and Mya) were like, ‘Oh my God, another workshop,’ but I told them that so many other schools in Connecticut wanted to be here, but we were here and we had to do this.”
The job of the three for Team Connecticut was to observe the activities on a number of fronts.
They first learned how to engage one another using different forms of social media platforms to try and encourage the most participation among their peers.
From there, it was on to watching the Games, both intercollegiate and interscholastic, through the eyes of both a spectator and as a member of the conference.
“We were looking at sportsmanship, how the coaches were working, how the athletes played together and, especially in Unified sports, how the partners and athletes were working together,” Stanikmas said.
There are several differences between Special Olympics and Unified Sports, both of which participated in the Games.
Special Olympics features competitions between individual disabled athletes and teams comprised of those with disabilities while Unified athletics allows for a partner to aid the disabled athlete. Special Olympians can be of any age while Unified teams generally are comprised of high school or college-aged competitors.
“One day, we shadowed the (Team Connecticut) track coach and another we shadowed the director of the Young Athlete Program (for disabled athletes 2-7 years old),” DeShaw said. “We learned how it worked and how we can make a Young Athlete Program (in Connecticut). We played with the kids.”
The three also shadowed several journalists working at the Games.
“The experience was to really learn what happens in the background of Special Olympics,” Hotta said.
Hotta said she chose DeShaw to attend because she had been a part of the program for all four of her years at The Academy. DeShaw plans to continue to compete in Special Olympics with Team Quinebaug Valley when she moves on this fall to Quinebaug Valley Community College.
Stanikmas said she got involved with the Unified program at The Academy as a freshman. She played field hockey in the fall, but signed up for Unified basketball in the winter. She played lacrosse in the spring, but made a fateful decision.
“I signed up for Unified gym in the fall of my sophomore year and it changed my whole outlook. After that, I knew I really wanted to get involved. I didn’t want to have anything to do with special education up until that point, but I realized how much of an impact it made on me and how much of an impact I could have on other people,” Stanikmas said.
Now, she not only works with the program but also helps Hotta in the classroom as a peer tutor. Stanikmas, a senior this year, plans to become a special education teacher in the future.
Her eyes were opened further at the Games.
“The biggest thing for me (in Seattle) was that it didn’t matter if someone did or did not have a disability, everybody was together all the time. There were no barriers,” Stanikmas said.
DeShaw said she also was impressed with the camaraderie expressed at the Games.
“The first time we met Team Connecticut, we didn’t know anyone. Now, we’re close and we still talk to a lot of them (through social media),” DeShaw said.
The two said they also created ties with members of other state organizations from Florida, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Idaho and New Hampshire among others.
Having seen and experienced Unified athletics on a national level, Hotta said Connecticut has a lot to be thankful for.
“I’m so proud to tell people that 95 percent of high schools in Connecticut have a Unified sports program. It was not the same with other states. Some were like ‘What is a Unified program in high school’? Connecticut really put a lot of effort into the ‘Unified Challenge’ a couple of years back. We have been extremely successful at the high school level,” Hotta said.
Last year, The Woodstock Academy program had 22 athletes and student-partners compete in soccer in the fall, 40 in basketball during the winter and about a dozen in the spring with a track program.
According to Hotta, the CIAC would like to see the Unified athletic program grow even more and expand to the middle school level.
“That’s one of our missions that we would like to make happen. Compared to other states, Connecticut is a pioneer,” she said.
Hotta said there were other takeaways from the Youth Leadership Experience that she can possibly utilize at The Academy and beyond this school year.
She would like to take the initial steps for a Unified Prom in conjunction with Norwich Free Academy and possibly some other schools in the I-395 corridor.
Stanikmas and DeShaw both took part in youth leadership activities provided by the CIAC last year, but had to travel to Cheshire to do so. Hotta said another initiative would be to possibly have some of those meetings take place in a webinar-based format to eliminate a lot of the travel time and cost.
“Our goal at The Academy is to sustain the program. Olivia’s class has some strong partners and to follow that, I have to start building a new group of partners. Partners are word-of-mouth. These students spread the word and they keep coming. We need to continue the trend,” Hotta said.
Marc Allard
Sports Information Director


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