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Two young Calgary athletes find friendship through the Unified Sports Program

Thanks to the Unified Sports Program two people ended up forging a lifelong friendship.

In September 2021, Erik Richardson met Sam Rosen at Crescent Heights High School in an Outdoor Education class. Little did they know they’d become best friends just two years later.

After meeting, the two quickly sparked up a friendship. Rosen, who is diagnosed with Down syndrome, joined the Crescent Heights track and field team through the Unified Sports Program. This program takes people with and without intellectual disabilities and puts them together on a team. The pair compete in individual events and their scores are added together, and the team is awarded one total score.

Rosen was approached about joining the program by a faculty member at Crescent Heights and Richardson was asked shortly after if he’d be interested in joining up with Sam to form a team. Richardson jumped at the opportunity.

“He (Sam) got invited to join the track team, do some kind of special events there with the Unified Program for Alberta High School Sports Association, and he needed an assistant to be with him and I stepped up right away into that role,” Richardson said.

Lori Lemieux, Sam’s mother said once the two started training together for the track meets their existing friendship flourished.

“I think, how it really developed, it was Erik’s idea that they practice during the winter time. So, once a week they went to his dad’s boxing gym there, and his dad put them through some paces to train for those three events (long jump, javelin, and the 400 meters),” Lemieux said.

“They would have fun, they’d just have free time in there boxing and fooling around – just like regular, typical high school students. It gave them an opportunity to spend more time together gradually and then they started spending time socially together as well.”

Lemieux said the Unified Sports Program has opened many doors not only in her son’s athletic life but personal life as well.

“The Unified Track (program) provided an opportunity for these friends to come together and practice together and play together and just have their relationship grow like anybody else,” Lemieux said.

“It kind of elevated Sam’s visibility in the school and I think it made others see that he is more than ‘oh, that kid with Down syndrome.’”

Richardson agreed, saying the Unified Sports Program has helped break down barriers that may have been there previously.

“Sam’s my friend. Right away I just wanted to be able to see, you know, Sam, who’s a student with Down syndrome, be able to kind of step into the role of being an athlete just like the rest of the kids in the school,” he said.

The future of unified sports

Athletics has always been a big part of Richardson’s life. This past spring, Richardson graduated from Crescent Heights and was recruited to play football at St. Francis Xavier University. Richardson made sure Rosen was left with a replacement partner in the Unified Sports Program, but Richardson is worried about the state of the program moving forward.

“It’s not really gaining the traction that I would like it to be,” Richardson said.

“This year, we went to (City Championships) for Calgary, and there were no students to compete against, right, and that was that. The year before that it was just the same and it was unfortunate for Sam because of course he wants to be there, competing against other students and making friends with more people and making connections within that kind of place.”

Rosen (left) and Richardson (right) competing at a Unified Track event. IMGAGE PROVIDED BY PANNETTPHOTOS.

Emily Lines, Para and Unified Sports Coordinator for Alberta Schools Athletic Association, said she was happy with the growth of the program – just seven years old – but admitted that there are barriers limiting the program’s success in Calgary.

“Because Calgary is so big, and there are these different governing bodies – even between the Catholic schools, the public schools and independent schools. There’s a lot of people in charge of sports and I think unified sports just kind of gets lost in translation,” Lines said.

“Eric and Sam have been great examples of this. Getting in with the student populations, with the parents, and with the different coaches or special needs teachers. That’s how we’re trying to get into Calgary, get those key aspects that people who would benefit from this, and try to grow our programs pretty much from the inside.”

Lines said the Unified Sports Program has both short and long-term goals it wants to hit.

“Ambitiously we want to be unified in all of our sports, all our school sports. If we can have a division in them all whether that’s basketball, volleyball, cross country, wherever we can see, we hope to be able to have unified or para aspects in that,” Lines said.

“I think our short-term goal and our manageable goal that we’re trying to hit in a couple of years is to see total province acceptance into it and have all of our zones represented in unified in some way.”

She’d also like to see each school athletics zone in the province host some kind of event.

Lemieux also hopes the program gains more support, as it has played a major role in changing her son’s life.

“From a parent’s point of view of a child with a disability, I would say that it allows your child to really become a true citizen of their school, of their community. And at this age, that’s their school primarily,” Lemieux said.

Richardson hopes more people will take an interest in the program, as for him it led to much more than just two people playing sports.

“Once we kind of went into the sports kind of realm, and I participated with him in track and field me and him kind of just spent almost every day together,” Richardson said.

“I was happy to be with Sam there, so I think it (the Unified Sports Program) definitely developed our friendship to another level.”

You can find more information on Unified sports here.