This post was written by athlete-leader and Team Missouri PR assistant Allison D’Agostino.
Photos: From left, Colin Garrison, Larry Hughes (Unified Partner), Mike Garrison (Unified Partner), John Hughes
In Special Olympics, some sports have something extra. There are athletes, coaches, and one other title that brings a little something extra: the Unified Partner.
A Unified Partner is an individual without an intellectual disability who trains and competes with those who do have an intellectual disability. In other words, anyone can join Special Olympics; we welcome everyone.
Unified Partners help out the athletes similar to a coach, but instead of watching from the sidelines, they get in on the action by playing alongside the athletes. They even learn new or adventurous things from their fellow teammates. Half a million people worldwide take part in Unified Sports. Unified Sports break down stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities in a really fun way.
Unified Partners can even compete at nationals. For instance, 16 are attending this year’s USA Games in Seattle to represent Team Missouri. Two of them are fathers to two SOMO athletes, but in two different sports. In other words, they are not Unified Partners with their own sons.
John Hughes is attending the USA Games for golf with Unified Partner Mike Garrison, whereas his father, Larry, will be there as a Unified Partner for bocce with Colin Garrison, Mike’s son. It’s a parent swap – SOMO style!
John Hughes and Mike Garrison, golf
With a supportive father, Larry Hughes, and a great Unified Partner, Mike Garrison, there’s no challenge and no obstacle John Hughes, 27, says he can’t push through. He stays determined in what he does, no matter what.
John Hughes plays golf, basketball and bocce and this year, he figured it was time to play golf at the USA Games instead of bocce as he’s done in the past.
“I had already gone in bocce (in 2006),” John said. “And I wanted the people who have not gone in bocce yet to give them a chance. It would be nice to try to win a medal in golf.”
His father, Larry, is on Team Missouri as a Unified Partner, but he’s on the bocce team.
“I’d kind of like him to win,” Larry said with a smile, admitting he’s not the best golfer and explaining why he isn’t his John’s Unified Partner.
When John first joined golf, his father Larry said he wasn’t very good. But thanks to a lot of practice and the guiding hand of Mike Garrison as his Unified Partner, the two of them are now off to the USA Games in Seattle.
Larry said that his son loves sports and loves to compete, but John had a really hard time growing up and playing sports in school.
In his time with Special Olympics, it has taught John what he can achieve in sports. He has learned sportsmanship, etiquette, to relax, and to have fun.
“It’s given him the opportunity to learn sports and learn how to do things at his pace,” Larry said. “I know it’s really been big for him and his self-esteem. (This) gives him more confidence to be able to take something he couldn’t do at all to be really good at it now.”
John said Mike Garrison makes a good Unified Partner because he has his own way of coaching. Mike returns the compliment and says that John is one of the most coachable athletes he’s ever trained.
“In the 12-14 years that I’ve been coaching, it takes most of these athletes a few years to make the changes that you suggest to them and put it into practice in a competition situation,” Mike said. “John can make those changes at practice this week, put into a golf tournament next week and change his game immediately.”
Both John and Mike are excited to go to Seattle for the Special Olympics USA Games. Mike looks forward to John’s new skills and the chance to medal. John – well, he’s just itching to get out on the golf course.
Colin Garrison and Larry Hughes, bocce
Colin Garrison, 29, is a positive and determined athlete who is always a step ahead, planning for what will happen next. His Unified Partner, Larry Hughes backs this up.
“This morning, (he asks,) ‘When do we need to get breakfast?’ Well, not til 7. He’s up at 6, you know, an hour early. That’s just Colin in a nut shell. He’s always doing more than what’s asked,” Larry said.
Colin and Larry are all set to compete at the USA Games in bocce.
“So you know… Colin’s dad, Mike, has been working with John, and has been his (Unified) Partner,” Larry said. “John responds really well with him. The kind (of) flip side of that is that I’ve been the bocce coach Park Hill for several years and … his dad has told me and Colin has told me how much he wanted to participate in bocce at the national games eight years ago. And he ended up going to track and field and in New Jersey, there weren’t any slots, so this opportunity came up.
“It just kind (of) worked out that, well, if Mike goes with John and I go with Colin, this could be a really cool thing for all of us to participate in the sports that we’re good at and kind (of) help each other out with Partners in the right areas,” Larry said.
Each Unified Partner duo have learned a lot from each other already. For Colin, he learned how to slow down and focus. With Larry, he’s very competitive, but he still learned an important lesson from Colin.
“There’s more important things than winning,” Larry said.
Though they’ll be going to compete and have fun, both pairs of Unified Partners are stoked to enjoy new experiences on their journey to Seattle.
The fathers and sons achieved a lot in the years they’ve been paired together. They’ve attended plenty of area and state competitions and are ready for their next test. USA Games, look out, here come the Garrisons and Hugheses.