ESPN hosts 6th annual Special Olympics Unified All-Star Soccer match in Orlando

Major League Soccer Works and ESPN hosted the 6th annual Special Olympics Unified All-Star Soccer match at ESPN Wide World of Sports on Wednesday morning.

Forty-four athletes, some with intellectual disabilities, played in the all-star game. They represented every city where there is a MLS team.

“I’ve been dreaming of this since I was little. I always wanted to be a futbol player,” said Jack Gourlay, who represented Orlando City Soccer.

He has a speech impairment. Special Olympics Florida President and CEO Sherry Wheelock said Gourlay was almost non-verbal when he started with the MLS Works Special Olympics Soccer Exchange Program, but that changed after he traveled to Chicago to play in an exchange game.

“My understanding from his mother is that he had not really been verbal prior to that,” Wheelock said. “When he came back his mom said he never stopped talking. So it’s just that experience… just being around all this different group of people, learning, the stimulation from being on his own, [being] independent, he came back much more verbal than when he left.”

Wheelock said players get the chance to travel to different cities throughout the MLS regular season and play exhibition games before MLS first-team matches. She said the experience helps players to build confidence.

“This is the first time many of them leave their county for an overnight trip away from their families… It provides platforms and opportunities for these individuals so they can better their skills and interests.”

During the game, special athletes are paired up with partners called unified partners. Samantha Salonen was selected to be Gourlay’s partner during the all-star game. She played on the field with him and was ready to help him if needed.

“We let them lead it and we just assist them. So they score the goals… It’s all about them.”

Wheelock said the ultimate goal of the game and program is social inclusion for all and building awareness.

“The opportunity for children and adults with intellectual disabilities to participate in sports alongside their peers without disabilities is invaluable, but I believe it is equally beneficial for those without disabilities to get to know and befriend individuals who are often labeled as ‘different.’”