By Leslie Roda, Special to the Telegram & Gazette
Apr 12, 2019 at 8:23 PM Apr 12, 2019 at 8:23 PM
WORCESTER — Over the past few weeks, more than 14 Special Olympics athletes and over 32 Assumption students have participated in a Unified Sports Pickleball League at the college’s Plourde Recreation Center.
Wednesday night, Assumption conducted its final pickleball games of the season.
For the uninitiated, pickleball, according to the USA Pickleball Association website is, “A fun sport that combines many elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. (It is) played both indoors or outdoors on a badminton-sized court and a slightly modified tennis net. (It is) played with a paddle and a plastic ball with holes (with teams of) doubles or singles.”
This past fall, Assumption became the first collegiate partner in Massachusetts to provide students the opportunity to compete with Special Olympic athletes in an intramural sports league.
“As it evolves, we want it to turn into a real intramural season, where we have teams and we do games with records and playoffs and produce a winner at the end is the goal,” Assumption director of recreation Michael Rodier said. “The goal is to make it a full-fledged intramural sport here.”
Rodier offered Assumption junior John LeDoux a position to run the program. After learning more about Unified Sports and doing a little research about pickleball, LeDoux said he decided to accept the position and he has enjoyed it since.
“Running a program like this has been kind of unique for me because I’ve never done something like this so I think overall, it’s had a positive impact on my life,” LeDoux said.
According to the Special Olympics, the goal of Unified Sports, “is to equalize the ability level of Special Olympics athletes with their partners and to promote inclusion through team practice and competition.”
“I’ve been here every week working with my athletes on my team,” Assumption senior Julia Demkowicz said. “It’s been really fun. I didn’t know how to play pickleball before this, but I really like the sport. I think that the sportsmanship and being a part of a team has been a really fun part of working in Unified Sports programs.”
Unified programs are growing in popularity on college campuses across the state. UMass Lowell has a Unified Sports program, and there is a Unified Walking Club at Springfield College, and a Unified Fitness Club at Worcester State.
“It came about because I got to know some of the people who work with Special Olympics,” Rodier said. “NIRSA, the National Intramural and Recreational Sports Association, which (Assumption is a member), they’ve been talking a lot about Unified Sports recently. Through the two partnerships is how we got the push to put it together.”
The partnership was extended this spring with the formation of the Unified Sports Pickleball League.
“One of the best things about the program is you look over there and there’s 10 people sitting on the bench. There’s athletes and its students sitting together,” Rodier said. “They’ve formed really strong friendships and that’s what it’s all about.”
Matt Ruxton, vice president of sports at Special Olympics Massachusetts, attended Wednesday night’s event at Assumption.
Ruxton, who has been working for the Special Olympics since 2004, said he was introduced to the organization by a college roommate at UMass Amherst.
“My old roommate was the volunteer director and volunteer coordinator (with Special Olympics), and I did event management,” said Ruxton, who graduated from UMass with a bachelor’s degree in sports management in 1999. “A job opened up to plan events and their sports and sounded like a great fit — I’ve been here ever since.”
Ruxton said he enjoys watching the athletes excel and succeed.
“Giving them the opportunity to play sports and the fact that they change the way people perspectives of what our athletes are capable of and what they can do when they get out on the court,” he said. “It’s great to see that.”
—Contact Leslie Roda at email@example.com.