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Champions! Franklin Unified Team Wins Gold at Special Olympics

Franklin High School’s Unified Basketball team won gold at the Special Olympics in Orlando, Florida last month. They received a hero’s welcome home. Photos used courtesy of the Town of Franklin

By J.D. O’Gara
A Unified team is a combination of students with and without intellectual disabilities, and Franklin High School’s Unified Sports Basketball program was the first from Massachusetts to qualify for the Special Olympics USA Games, held in Orlando, Florida last month. They came home with the gold.
“This is the first year they did the interscholastic basketball team,” explains Coach Lisa Burger, who explains High school Unified Sports is a collaboration between the (Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association) MIAA and the Special Olympics. “Massachusetts decided they wanted to send a high school team, and we played in a jamboree in November with other high school towns, and we were selected.” During the fall season, John Leighton coaches Unified Basketball, but for “the team that went to the Special Olympics, Jeremy Rice and I helped coach in the fall with John, and Jeremy and I coached them for the Special Olympics.”
The 10 Franklin students that were selected to go had been playing together for about a year, but six of them have been playing together for several years. This is the fifth year Franklin has had a Unified Sports program for basketball, and the program itself has about 50 kids, says the coach. Choosing who went to Florida was a difficult task, she says, with “a lot of sleepless nights” among the coaches. All players had to be 16 at the time of the games and they all had to be able to travel independently. “We have so many fabulous athletes,” says Burgess, “so it was a process.”
For the group that competed at the Special Olympics, Burger says she and other coaches felt “honored watching these 10 kids grow together and build friendships and bonds. It was absolutely fantastic. It was an honor to be part of this team with them.”
Continuing, she says, “The whole week we were down there they exemplified everything we could imagine. They were 10 friends, first and foremost, with such a high level of sportsmanship, befriending the Unified Team from Connecticut,” says Burger. “When Payton Boudreau stole the ball, got it down the court with seconds of the gate and made the pass to Tyler Morrill who was able to make the shot, everything they had experienced all week of pure joy was able to end with a medal. It was like the icing on the cake and could not have been any better.”
The team was given a police escort and a crowded reception as their bus rolled into Franklin High School’s parking lot upon their arrival home.
“It was amazing, very humbling,” says Burgess. “This town, the support that they gave and continue to give was unimaginable. To come home and see the high school parking lot filled and cheering and high fiving – the town really is supportive and fantastic, and our boosters being able to pull that together so quick was just truly amazing.”
The teammates, who practiced weekly, with lots of team-building activities, will celebrate with a BBQ this month before three team members head to college in the fall.
Burger says coaching Unified Sports for Franklin, basketball in the fall and Unified Track in the spring, “is one of my biggest joys. All kids are different, and knowing they can do any sport is great,” says Burger, “There is so much pride. I wish I had a bigger word for that – for this team and these kids.”