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Unified teams to take to courts SPECIAL OLYMPICS


Adam Manning decided to miss his indoor soccer team's first-round playoff game so he could participate in tomorrow's annual Maryland Special Olympics Basketball Tournament.

"I just thought it would be fun," said Manning, a seventh-grader at Lockerman Middle School in Caroline County. "My soccer game would have only lasted an hour and this tournament is going to last a whole day."

Not only will it be fun, but the 13-year-old's participation in the Unified Sports Competition -- a relatively new program that combines athletes with and without developmental disabilities on teams that compete against other unified squads -- also will be helping the mentally challenged lead fuller and more independent lives.

The daylong event, which will be conducted at several sites throughout the Catonsville area, will get started at 8:30 a.m. with opening ceremonies at UMBC Fieldhouse. Nearly 500 Special Olympians from around the state, who have advanced to the state tournament via local qualifiers, will take part in individual skills competitions, as well as five-on-five and three-on-three basketball games.

More than 40 athletes -- all from Caroline County, where unified sports competition has been implemented in the public schools -- will compete in a four-team, double-elimination exhibition.

"No one is told to hold back," said Patti Papineau, Area Director of Sports for the Upper Shore bureau of Maryland Special Olympics. "They're out there to win like everyone else and they all play to the best of their ability. They're all out there on their own merit and they all have a responsibility on the field. They want to be accepted as athletes and show that they can rise to the occasion."

Spectators and volunteers are welcome at all of the tournament sites, which include gymnasiums at UMBC, Catonsville Community College, Catonsville High School and the Maiden Choice Center.

"The general goal is to have an inclusive program that not only benefits the athlete of high ability who hasn't found the right competition in the Special Olympics, but one that gives the non-disabled athlete, who may not have the ability to play for their high school team, an opportunity to participate," said Mary Beth Hunt, a Perry Hall resident and vice president of sports programs for Maryland Special Olympics.

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