Although the event Central Crossing High School held March 6 was listed as a basketball-skills competition, every participant was a winner.
The first Special Olympics Skills Competition between the basketball teams from Central Crossing, Franklin Heights and Grove City high schools ended with each athlete receiving a medal. The Special Olympics cheerleaders from Franklin Heights and Grove City also participated and received medals.
The events included target pass, 10-meter dribble, speed dribble, three-point shots and spot shots.
The Special Olympics program began in South-Western Schools during the 2013-14 school year at Central Crossing.
"Originally, Central Crossing had the only Special Olympics team in the district, and we had upward of 30 students on our team," said Mandy Corbett, a special-education teacher who coaches Central Crossing's team with guidance counselor Christa Russell; Russell's son, Jake; and Grove City police officer Pat Shaw.
After South-Western schools moved cross-categorical special-education units to Franklin Heights and Grove City high schools, the two schools started their own Special Olympics teams, Christa Russell said.
Franklin Heights started its team in 2016 and Grove City's team is completing its first year.
All three teams concentrate on basketball, although Franklin Heights also has included track and field events for its team, Corbett said.
"We play an eight-game season, mostly against each other, although we've also played games against teams from other districts, including Upper Arlington, Groveport and Dublin," she said.
The skills competition was held as a way to bring the season to a close and bring all three teams together, Corbett said.
The teams include students who are currently enrolled at each school and recent graduates who are now participating in programs at Columbus State Community College or in the Project Search internship program at Doctors Hospital.
"Some of the students from Grove City and Franklin Heights used to be on our team, so it's kind of a nice reunion," she said. "We're all friends and everybody was excited that we could all be there at Central Crossing (for the skills competition) together."
The Special Olympics team at Central Crossing gets support from parents, volunteers and students, Russell said.
"We've had both the girls and boys basketball teams come out to watch us play and cheer us on this season," she said. "That meant so much to our players."
The Special Olympics squad also spent an hour practicing with the girls team before one game, Corbett said.
"We set up to do our team warm-up activities and the girls team was really surprised," she said. "They were saying, 'you guys are doing a whole lot more than we do.' "
As much as the members of her team gained from those experiences, Russell said she thinks the general student population benefits from learning about and supporting the Special Olympics squad.
"They come to watch our games and they see it's different from the regular games,' she said. "If one team is winning by a lot, we'll say, 'let's let the other team score.' "
On the bench during games, Corbett said. she and the other coaches make a point to make sure everyone gets a chance to score a basket.
"If one of our players hasn't made a point yet, we'll tell our team to make sure you get the ball to him or her," she said.
"The kids in the stands see it's not just about winning," Russell said. "It's about having fun, sportsmanship and thinking about more than just yourself. And those are lessons that apply to life in general."
Participating on the Special Olympics teams help boost the self-confidence and self-esteem of the students with special needs and offers a network of support from their teammates, Corbett said.
"It gives you a great feeling to see the smiles on their faces when they're on the court with their team," she said.
"Heartwarming is the best adjective I can find to describe it," Russell said. "If you come to one of our games, you're going to leave feeling good and walking with a spring in your step."
Central Crossing senior Chad Smith joined his school's team as a sophomore.
"I wanted to play basketball, but I realized that regular basketball wouldn't be so suitable for me," he said. "I thought if I could find something that would permit someone in an Individualized Education Program like me to play, that would be wonderful.
"Being part of our team lets me play basketball and improve my skills," Smith said. "I like hanging out with my teammates, making baskets and having fun."
"It may sound a little corny, but our team is like a second family for me," he said. "I may not know all the names of the people on my team, but if I see them I know we're teammates and I have that bond with them.
"I love playing basketball because I love shooting hoops," said Mathew Pieper.
Pieper is a senior culinary-arts student at the South-Western Career Academy who plays on Central Crossing's team.
Playing on the basketball team "helps keep me active," he said.
"I can play at my own pace," Pieper said. "It's kind of hard for me to do multiple things at the same time, but here I can work on different skills and improve at my own pace. I'm planning to go to college and I'm hoping I can continue to play basketball because I love it."
His teammates inspire each other, he said.
"The most meaningful thing for me is that I get to interact with other people with disabilities and autism," Pieper said. "The team is something we can be involved in together."