President’s Corner: March

2023 Census – Athlete and Unified Teammate Participation Up
Athletes and Unified Teammates the Deeper Impact of Special Olympics Maryland

We just completed our annual “census” for 2023 which tracks athlete and Unified teammate participation, and I am proud to share that we increased the number of athletes and Unified teammates from 15,588 in 2022 to 19,871 in 2023.  The breakdown included 8,771 athletes who trained and competed in 2023 which is up 36% from 6,442 in 2022. We also increased the number of Unified teammates to 11,100, up 1,954 (21%) from 9,146 in 2022.

We’re experiencing positive outcomes resulting from our focus on two priorities identified in our strategic plan. Specifically, we determined that defining pilot programs for smart growth through schools gave us the greatest chance for recruiting more athletes and Unified teammates. Through partnerships with early head start and head start programs in schools across the state we have grown our Young Athletes program the greatest growth in our Young Athletes program to include a total of 8,956 athletes (2,661) and Unified teammates (6,395). Additionally, we have grown our elementary school and middle school recreation and intramural program to include 515 athletes and over 1540 Unified teammates. While our three-year-old Unified Physical Education program has grown to include 389 athletes and 339 Unified teammates. The success of these programs results directly from strategic partnerships with school systems like those forged with Anne Arundel County and Garrett County.

The long-term benefits of school partnerships include developing meaningful friendships through sport that ultimately lead students to lifelong behaviors predisposed to inclusion in school, the workplace and in the community.  In the case of our Young Athletes efforts, research shows that physical activity in early childhood is an accelerator of cognitive development, so the benefits are clear on cognitive development. The Unified nature of this program also contributes to enhanced development of social skills in our athletes while also fostering natural inclusion as a way of life in early childhood among the Unified teammates.

Additionally, most people don’t know that when compared to those without intellectual disabilities, individuals with intellectual disabilities are:

  • 2x as likely to be obese
  • 2x as likely to have cardiovascular disease or asthma
  • 5x as likely to have diabetes

These underlying health conditions contribute to a life expectancy reduced by an average of 16 years when compared to people without intellectual disabilities. These programs are designed to create healthy habits of physical activity that will last a lifetime and help close the gap on these health disparities.

So when people ask me what we’re going to do with all the money we raised from the Plunge, and all the other revenue sources that support our statewide $9.5m budget, I respond by saying, “We’re committed to reaching more athletes through strategic partnerships that deliver more frequent, high quality sports and training in the communities where they live.” We are supporting fundamental expenses like facilities, equipment, transportation, uniforms, and for overnight events housing and meals. Going forward, we need to invest in developing more strategic partnerships to include more athletes and Unified teammates.

We’re excited about the growth in 2023 and look forward to sustained growth in 2024 and beyond. We are grateful for the incredible support that enables us to reach more athletes and we look forward to growing our revenue to $10m, $11m, $12m and beyond because each new dollar enables us to reach more athletes and unified teammates. These programs help our athletes develop healthy lifestyles that include physical activity and social interaction, both of which contribute to the holistic development of our athletes and Unified teammates. With your continued support we will continue reach more athletes and Unified teammates as together through sport we create a world where opportunity is no limited by disability.

Author’s Note
Special Olympics Unified Sports® combines individuals with intellectual disabilities with peers without intellectual disabilities to form teams that compete against other similarly formed teams. Special Olympics Maryland has offered Unified Sports® for over 30 years. Since 2009 we have offered our Interscholastic Unified Sports® (IUS) program with Unified High School teams competing in three seasons Fall (Tennis), Winter (Indoor Bocce and Strength and Conditioning) and Spring (Outdoor Bocce and Track and Field). More recently we have introduced our Unified Young Athletes program, along with Unified Physical Education, Whole School Engagement and Inclusive Youth Leadership programs at all grade levels.

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