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Play with purpose

Special Olympics Minnesota and Augsburg College team up

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The winner of each Augsburg-Hamline Unified Rivalry competition—such as the basketball game pictured—earns the “Unified Hammer,” a trophy similar to the ceremonial sledge hammer passed since 2005 between the schools each time their varsity football teams square off.

Hundreds of fans line sturdy oak bleachers. All eyes are on a group of athletes in college basketball jerseys. There are short ones, tall ones, fast ones, and slow ones—some having good days and others feeling off their game.

An athlete flies through the air, dunking a ball. High-fives, cheers, and clapping echo through the rafters. Moments later, voices rise.

“No, no, the other way,” shouts an encouraging spectator trying to prompt an athlete dribbling with authority toward the wrong basket. A foul, some underhand throws, and then a pause for a player with a medical issue. Play resumes.

More commotion. Sneakers skid across the gym floor as the spectrum of abilities and disabilities blurs.

Then, the buzzer sounds, but the final score isn’t the focus given the diversions of smiling, sweaty faces and celebratory exchanges among athletes.

The February game brought together teams comprising athletes from Augsburg College, Hamline University, and Special Olympics Minnesota—the first in a series of ongoing Unified Sports competitions that pair individuals with and without intellectual disabilities. Auggie participation reflects the Augsburg Athletic Department’s broader effort—spearheaded by its Student-Athlete Advisory Committee—to engage student-athletes in meaningful, life-changing community service.

And in this game, everyone wins: dozens of student-athletes such as Sean Adams ’17 are building lasting bonds and gaining a more sophisticated understanding of ability; Minnesota’s more than 8,000 Special Olympics athletes such as Alec Kelsey are gaining confidence, training, and lifelong friends; and Augsburg alumni such as Steele Krause ’16, are leading informed, engaged lives after graduation.

Krause said volunteerism through Augsburg transformed his idea of service from “checking a box” to a way of life.

“At Augsburg, my idea of service evolved from logging hours to serving with purpose and gaining a true understanding of each organization,” said the former men’s basketball player now living in Denver. “Last week, I stopped by the Colorado Special Olympics office to learn more about ways to get involved.”

Augsburg’s embrace of unified competition in the past year has intensified personal connections and impact, said Adams, a captain of Augsburg’s men’s cross country and men’s track and field teams.

“Out there on the court, it didn’t matter whether someone had a disability or not; we were all working toward a common goal and all had strengths to contribute to the team,” he said, reflecting on a Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Special Olympics D-III Week Unified Basketball Tournament held in April at Macalester College. “Playing alongside others—next to their pure love for the game and competition—reminds me why I love sports.”

A champion school

Augsburg has partnered with Special Olympics since 2011, when NCAA Division III formally began supporting the organization’s efforts to provide year-round training and competition for more than 5.3 million children and adults in 170 countries. But Augsburg upped its game in 2016 by committing to pair with Special Olympics Minnesota each month of the academic year. SOMN named Augsburg a Champion School, one of only five institutions in the state recognized for student leadership and advocacy, campus involvement, and participation in Unified Sports.

Michael Kane, vice president of SOMN’s area programs and initiatives, said the organization is eager to strengthen existing collaborations, including regional bowling championships, hockey tournaments, and the organization’s most popular fundraiser, the Polar Plunge—during which Auggies, along with thousands of Minnesotans, jump into icy lakes.

Augsburg’s passionate drive to advance understanding, acceptance, and healthy living is elevating SOMN’s reach and reputation, particularly among the next generation.

“Augsburg College is a great example of an institution striving to make inclusion a reality,” Kane said.

“Students and staff have fully embraced Special Olympics Minnesota by volunteering at competitions and planning to host a wide variety of events and activities. Hundreds of Augsburg students have stood up to make these events and activities possible.”

Student-led committee advances commitment

Guiding Augsburg’s increased involvement is the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, a group of about 50 student-athlete volunteers committed to enriching the student experience through a range of relevant service opportunities. Jane Becker is Augsburg’s head volleyball coach and athletic community service coordinator, and Jennifer Jacobs is an assistant athletic director, assistant volleyball coach and advisor for SAAC, overseeing the student-run organization with representation from all of Augsburg’s 21 teams.

The pair talk at length about the importance of student-athletes connecting with the community. Augsburg student-athletes and teams host clinics and open gyms for neighboring schools, help area churches renovate, and build partnerships—like the Unified Rivalry with Hamline—to foster lasting friendships and healthy competition.

Becker and Jacobs lift up the committee’s work with Special Olympics because it advances the lessons of determination, teamwork, and heart that coaches promote on the court and in the field. They hear of perceptions changed and career paths adjusted because of these meaningful experiences.

“Our student-athletes are putting in long hours of competition, making grades, and then giving themselves to others,” said Jacobs. “The amount of time and energy our student-athletes dedicate to Special Olympics and other volunteer opportunities is inspiring. They are committed to making an impact, relationship building, and experiential learning.”

Augsburg as a champion school

Augsburg is one of only five Special Olympics Champion Schools in Minnesota. The designation is granted to institutions that excel in three areas: Unified Sports, student leadership and advocacy, and campus involvement.

  • Unified Sports: Augsburg student-athletes participate alongside Special Olympics Minnesota athletes in clinics and competitions. In partnership with Hamline University, Auggies cofounded the first Unified Rivalry in Minnesota. Special Olympics Minnesota created the Unified Hammer trophy given to the winner of these competitions throughout the year.
  • Student Leadership and Advocacy: The more than 50 student-athlete leaders on Augsburg’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee work with SOMN to activate students, engage faculty, and promote communities of acceptance.
  • Campus Involvement: Augsburg student-athletes have enthusiastically recruited students to create teams for the Polar Plunge and other key SOMN events held throughout the year. The campus also has held Respect Campaigns, including Spread the Word to End the Word, which discourages people from using demeaning, offensive, or inaccurate terms.

“Our events are volunteer driven, and I’m just not sure what we would do without Augsburg student-athletes volunteering at every turn,” said Devin Kaasa, the college partnership and competition manager for SOMN. “Their work fosters respect and dignity for people with intellectual disabilities and changes actions and attitudes among their peers without intellectual disabilities.”

Rachel Frantz ’17, co-president of SAAC, said she and her peers are energized by the heart and competitiveness of Special Olympics athletes. She has friends such as Tom, who competes in speed walking and swimming. Non-verbal, Tom communicates through sign and body language.

“His favorite gesture,” Frantz said, “is his signature hug that last about three minutes.”

It’s hard to let go of those types of connections.

“Special Olympics athletes teach me how to come as I am and do my best. They support one another and foster a positive environment where each athlete can grow,” said the biology major, who has participated for the past six years in Special Olympics events, including jumping in an icy lake during the Polar Plunge, competing in a unified basketball game, and volunteering at basketball, swimming, and track and field events, which happen to be her favorite.

“The athletes are always congratulating all of their competitors, regardless of their finish,” Frantz said. “I love cheering them on as they achieve a new personal record or finish a difficult race.”

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Members of the Augsburg football team volunteer at the 2016 Fall Games organized by Special Olympics Minnesota.

Lasting bonds among peers, in community

Beyond friendships and lasting memories within the community, these experiences inspire bonds among Augsburg student-athletes as well as the general student body, many of whom also serve Special Olympics. Frantz, a competitor in lacrosse, cross country, and track, who likes snorkeling, rock climbing, and choir, might not have gotten to know Adams, who plays guitar and acts in his roommate’s short films. But, through SAAC, the two have volunteered together, growing closer with every project.

“It’s been a privilege to build upon the good work of those who led the committee before us,” said Adams, who serves as co-chair of SAAC’s volunteering committee. “The evolution to unified competitions and partnerships with other colleges in the area is expanding our reach and feels more authentic and influential than cheering from the sidelines.”

Friends across the river, Hamline’s SAAC advisor and women’s volleyball coach Becky Egan and senior softball player Mary-Clare Couillard, said they, too, have big hopes to grow from several rivalry games to multiple contests and volunteer efforts throughout the year.

“Our campuses can have such a positive impact for Special Olympics athletes, and I hope to see us doing all that we can to help out,” said Couillard, who has interned with Special Olympics since June.

Egan echoed her sentiments.

“Since our campuses are so close, it is easy for our student-athletes to travel and stay excited about volunteering,” Egan said. “The more inclusive we become with other schools in our conference, the healthier the competitions become across our other sports, and it broadens connections among all our student-athletes.”

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The Augsburg-Hamline Unified Rivalry series began with basketball games and has grown to include several activities. The schools hosted a flag football game in October and will sponsor a softball game this spring.

Diverse, expansive efforts

Devin Kaasa, the college partnership and competition manager for SOMN, is the main contact for schools in the MIAC as they build and strengthen their relationship with the nonprofit. Kaasa, whose brother has participated in Special Olympics for 20 years, said he has been showcasing positive Augsburg-Hamline outcomes to promote similar interactions among the conference’s 13 schools.

“Our athletes look up to student-athletes because of their abilities and energy. To some, these college students are like professionals, and playing alongside them is such a thrill,” Kaasa said. “I love Augsburg because they are always up for trying a new idea, and I can always count on them to serve.”

Augsburg’s involvement with SOMN has been diverse and expansive, growing in size and scope with each passing year. During a January 2016 game against Saint Mary’s University, the Augsburg College women’s hockey team recognized more than 100 Special Olympics athletes in attendance with a ceremonial puck drop prior to the game. Proceeds from puck purchases for a halftime “Chuck-A-Puck” competition benefitted SOMN. The following weekend, the hockey players volunteered at the Special Olympics Minnesota State Poly Hockey Tournament.

In early March, Auggies raised more than $1,000 for the 19th annual Polar Plunge event at Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. The 2016 plunge season raised more than $3.9 million for Special Olympics’ athletic, health, and leadership programs for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

Just this September, members of the Augsburg football team helped out with SOMN’s Fall Games where athletes competed in equestrian, softball, bocce, and golf events.

Each month, the NCAA Division III features a Special Olympics Spotlight Poll, asking fans to vote on one of three compelling stories highlighting efforts at various institutions and conferences. With 1,300 votes, the MIAC won the July spotlight (and $500 toward its next Special Olympics event) for hosting the first-ever conference-wide unified tournament.

Athletes take a break from the action during a MIAC conference-wide unified basketball tournament held in April at Macalester College.
Athletes take a break from the action during a MIAC conference-wide unified basketball tournament held in April at Macalester College.

Mark Kelsey’s son, Alec, was among the 50 Special Olympics athletes who competed alongside student-athletes from Augsburg, Carleton, Hamline, Macalester, St. Catherine, and St. Thomas in an eight-team, double-elimination tournament held during the fifth annual NCAA Division III Week in April.

At 6-foot-2, 25-year-old Alec loves basketball, lives for the moment, and never looks for an excuse to quit, even after a seizure on the court.

“Special Olympics athletes represent the best of what sports has to offer—no fear, no nerves, no hate, all heart,” said Kelsey, who started the West Metro Warriors Special Olympics delegation in the Twin Cities 10 years ago.

“Alec rarely gets through a game without a seizure, but I cannot tell you how excited and proud he and his fellow athletes are to play with college student-athletes. We were particularly impressed with Augsburg’s showing at the tournament … while one team played, the other team cheered with Special Olympics athletes. It was magical, and I can only hope those Auggies were so moved in such a deep and positive way that they become forever advocates for inclusion and acceptance.”

Experience ‘sticks with you’

As a recent graduate, Krause regularly reflects on the intersection of athletic, religious, and academic experiences he enjoyed at Augsburg. His time learning to live with purpose “sparked a craving for personal and communal excellence” and a desire to create a stable, nourishing, and joyful environment for his community.

“Being involved with SOMN was humbling and gratifying … and being able to use my knowledge and skills within various sports is empowering,” said Krause, a former SAAC co-president who works as an account manager for Pacific Office Automation. “I am extremely proud to be an Auggie, and I will always refer myself as such. Augsburg’s commitment to community is astounding, and it keeps getting better every year.”

At Augsburg, Krause said, he learned that volunteering is as much about self-reflection after the experience as it is about the outcome of the service. Only then can people begin to understand more about the world around them and assess (and possibly adjust) their attitudes and actions.

“I no longer just show up to volunteer and then leave when the job is done,” he said. “It sticks with me, urging me to think about how my involvement and experiences shape my life, and how I can continue to make a difference.”

 Gallery: Augsburg football players helped facilitate softball and bocce ball activities at the 2016 Fall Games series organized by Special Olympics Minnesota.


Top image: In February, a Special Olympics Minnesota athlete had the chance to skate the Minnesota Wild flag to center ice during an Augsburg College men’s hockey game. The Minnesota Wild hosts several events each year to celebrate “The State of Hockey,” and Augsburg facilitated this unique partnership between SOMN and the professional sports team.

Photos courtesy of Kevin Healy, Matt Higgins, and Special Olympics Minnesota. 

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