Cardinal Court is buzzing. Under championship banners and signage that reads “Play Hard” and “No Excuses,” spectators hover on the black-outlined edges of four half courts. Athletes don yellow and green vests to signify their teams as they prepare to tip off for one of the most anticipated events of spring at Purdue.
There’s Purdue’s quarterback!
David Blough dishes to a teammate who pops a jumper. Blough races over for a quick high-five before they reset.
Isn’t that tall girl on the women’s team?
Nora Kiesler cheers as teammate Dominique Oden’s backdoor cut works to perfection.
Who’s that going nuts?
Anthony Mahoungou screams, pumps his fists and chest bumps everyone around him.
These aren’t typical college pick-up games. Teams are comprised of Purdue student-athletes and college-aged counterparts who have intellectual disabilities. Blough’s high-five recipient, Oden’s passer and Mahoungou’s celebration partners suffer from Down syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome and other cognitive and adaptive behavior limitations.
They’re playing what’s referred to as unified basketball. Nearly 40 Special Olympics athletes joined partner athletes from several Boilermaker sports Sunday evening for a third straight year playing a unified basketball tournament, the brainchild of junior Abby Abel, that brings awareness to a emerging crusade in competitive sports.
“The biggest issue is that partner athletes don’t want to run as fast,” Abel explains. “Some people don’t know how hard to go. I tell them you’re playing a sport they know how to play.
“Our first year, one of the football players got blocked. He wanted to know if it was OK to block the Special Olympics athlete,” Abel laughs. “We’re like, yeah go for it. He just blocked you!”
Abel scans across her event, admiring when it all comes together. Blough is one of the best partner athletes, she says. He gives enough effort to make it a real contest, but knows when to let others contribute.
“He does an excellent job of understanding the concept of ‘I can do me’ and I can share the ball. He gets it.”
It began with a charge. Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) commissioner Bobby Cox entrusted the IHSAA Student Advisory Committee (SAC) to engage in “servant leadership.”
“It was a discussion about entitlement,” Cox recalls. “Student-athletes wear uniforms with a name of the school across the chest that often represents their community. They get food and transportation and none of that stuff is free. It all comes from somewhere. We asked, what are you doing to give back to your school and your community?”
The SAC researched options and unanimously requested that an official partnership be formed with Special Olympics Indiana. In December 2012, “Champions Together” was announced as a model to activate schools through the Play Unified campaign. Soon after, program director Lee Lonzo visited Carmel High School. Abel jumped on the chance to interview for the two-year commitment to learn how to launch and support the program.
“I first met her when she was a sophomore and I don’t think she knew anything about Special Olympics at the time,” Lonzo remembers. “She started off just meeting a few Special Olympics athletes and finding out how rewarding it was and going on to national positions and helping out so much with the IHSAA partnership.”
Abel attended the Special Olympics North American Youth Activation Summit in North Carolina. She learned how the organization, for years, gave athletes with disabilities opportunities to compete against one another. Now, they wanted to break down that barrier.
“It’s all about inclusiveness,” Cox says. “If you want the kids who sit together at lunch with the kids who don’t really feel like they belong, this puts them together. This bonds them.”
After the summit, Abel set out on bringing unified sports to her high school. She created a committee of fellow Carmel athletes. They became a Special Olympics partner school, raising money and awareness while hitting prescribed benchmarks to ensure success, becoming one of 13 schools that sponsored team for an inaugural IHSAA unified track championship.
Just four years later, 111 Indiana schools have created unified track teams. There’s also unified bocce and unified bowling. Funding for a unified flag football championship goes to a vote soon.
“We’re one of the fastest growing unified sports states,” Cox says. “Connecticut was one of the first and started their programs 25 years ago. In five years, we’ve almost caught up.”
Abel led the initiative at Carmel through her junior and senior years. She trekked to several conferences, including the Special Olympics USA Youth Summit in New Jersey, where she met partner athletes from each of the 50 states, built relationships and learned how to manage events. She returned to her high school each time with new ideas.
“Once I had built that foundation my junior year, my senior year everyone wanted to be part of the committee. Everyone was coming out for unified track. We had to make cuts! Unified track became an actual school sport. You earned a letter for it. It was awesome.”
Abel met new friends, too.
“My best friend, Mitch, he gives these speeches about how when he grew up, no one thought he would walk, no one thought he would run. To watch his growth to go from someone who was super shy, who couldn’t do things for himself to now he plays sports and make friends with everyone.”
Mitch Bonar was born with cerebral palsy. He loved sports but had trouble making friends. He was bullied at school, found refuge in video games and became withdrawn until he joined Special Olympics.
“He’s the most social person I’ve ever met,” Abel says. “He just loves everyone the same. To go from being that kid who went through all that adversity to have that outlook on life is just absolutely amazing.”
Abel and Bonar, who went to school in Noblesville, graduated in 2015. While Abel was going on to play college basketball at Purdue, Bonar was losing his opportunities.
“He loved Play Unified and he was sad to be leaving high school,” Abel says. “He could still do Special Olympics, but it’s so different representing your school.”
In order to participate in the Special Olympics Global Youth Leadership Summit at the World Games, Abel had to pitch an idea. So the two worked together on a solution that could keep both of them involved in unified sports.
“So we came up with this idea of a Play Unified event that would be at colleges that would bring local athletes who lived nearby who would love to play unified sports, but they’re no longer high school age,” Abel says.
The idea was, with enough growth, the event could filter into supporting a unified intermural team that would play other colleges.
“So in the SEC, they have flag football,” Abel says. “They make it a pretty big deal. They have it televised. So I was like, Big Ten is basketball and basketball’s my sport. So we pitched this idea of doing a Play Unified basketball tournament that would get the athletes here involved, get the fraternities and sororities here involved.”
Abel’s event drew only a handful of athletes the first year. It doubled in size the next year. And tripled in size this year.
“I gave her this wonderful opportunity to get involved with something she didn’t know anything about,” Lonzo says. “That little spark has turned into this flame. It’s burned with a passion for the last seven years.”
Abel and Lonzo hope to turn unified basketball into something more formal. Interest has grown on campus and Abel is often asked for advice when others host unified games.
“I think everyone I’ve met a Purdue,” Abel adds, “once they see it, are really behind it.”
Abel was always set on Purdue.
“Plan A was here. I didn’t have a Plan B,” Abel admits. “I was going to do anything to get there. I went to camp going into my junior year and they offered me this walk-on position. I took it without hesitation.”
Abel grew up in Carmel, Indiana, with two siblings: a sister, Sarah, and twin brother, Greg. Her parents, Robert and Deanna, are both accountants. Playing sports were part of their family activities for as long as Abel can remember.
“It’s what we did we did with our cousins and neighbors,” Abel remembers.
“When we were younger, I would play on Greg’s teams. When we played with his friends, he would say I had to play at their level because no one was going to take it easy on me. He always had my back but he always told me I had to earn it.”
Abel attended Purdue summer camps year after year. She made the varsity team as a freshman and was all-county as a senior. She was as good as or better than six teammates now playing Division I through Division III collegiate basketball, and could have accepted a scholarship to a number of mid-major schools. While some people questioned her hasty commitment, Abel never wavered.
“I’ve wanted to live my dream that I’ve had since I was 9. It was so much bigger than being the best player on a team.”
Special Olympics helped her see that sports was about more than having the best statistics. At the end of her sophomore season of high school, Abel ruminated about her role on the team. She was upset with her play and worried about the results. Then, she was invited to a Play Unified clinic at the Special Olympics leadership conference.
“I met all these athletes, learned about this new movement,” Abel recalls. “I saw these athletes who had the love for the game that I had but never had the opportunity to represent their schools. I had never heard anyone talk about sports like they did.”
Having a locker room to change in, riding to games on a bus full of your teammates – things she took for granted became more special. She entered her junior season caring more about her relationships with teammates than her play on the court.
“We get so bogged down in wins and losses, when it’s just about the journey.”
Being part of a Big Ten Conference program also gives Abel a platform to reach a mass audience with her endeavors.
“I was given a special opportunity to come here and I feel like repaying that. There’s a lot of kids who don’t get an opportunity to do what they love. There’s not many people who have the opportunity to live their dream like I do.”
Written by Jared Thompson, photography by Charles Jischke, feature video by Matt Tornquist