ST. ALBANS — Bellows Free Academy, St. Albans Unified Sports players gathered at Collins-Perley Thursday, after school, to play a little floor hockey.

 

Unified Sports is a Special Olympics program pairing intellectually disabled athletes with mentors to play games and complete in a supportive setting. The team meets once a week on Thursday afternoons for about an hour.

 

Like any other team, BFA competes against other Vermont high schools, with athletes in grades 9-12.

 

The program is mostly funded through BFA, with equipment grants from Special Olympics Vermont. One of last year’s partners approached the program coordinators about applying for a $1,200 grant from the Ronald McDonald. That paid for 10 new pairs of snowshoes, new basketballs and team shirts.

 

Before their practice Thursday, James Naylor, who coordinates the program along with Kasia Bilodeau, reminded the athletes of their code — be respectful and have fun.

 

Then he asked, “What am I most worried about?”

 

“To have fun?” one athlete suggested.

 

No. Naylor was worried about someone getting whacked with the floor hockey sticks. “I think I was the only one last time who got hit in the shins,” he said.

 

The athletes agreed to rules, then took off with their partners to run a lap around the room and stretch before practice.

 

Unified Sports participants play five sports each year in eight week session. They just finished soccer. Snowshoeing will begin Jan. 1, if there’s enough snow. Then there’s basketball — the Unified Sports program is now a Vermont Principals’ Association league, able to travel to other high schools and compete like any other team — and bocce. BFA Unified Sports hosts a statewide bocce competition at Collins-Perley Sports & Fitness Center in May. Last year’s drew 400 participants.

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