The USA Games take place once every four years, and qualification is by draw.
The Westside Blue Thunder unified volleyball team won gold during its first appearance at the 2022 USA Special Olympics, which took place June 5 to 12 in Orlando.
Under the name Florida West Side, the team defeated the Florida Blasters during the playoffs 50-38 in the final Thursday, June 9.
“It was amazing,” coach Wilma Wright said. “It was like a ‘Pinch me, I can’t believe this,’ type of feeling.”
The Florida West Side team is more than just a team, it’s family: The majority of the players on the roster have been playing together for more than six years.
“I’ve had the kids for so long, and I’ve gotten to know their families,” Wright said. “They are all so close.”
Wright began to recruit the athletes for the team about 10 years ago, when she was a physical education coach at Lakeview Middle School.
For the last nine years, the team has competed at the Special Olympics State Games. To qualify for the USA Games, a team has to win gold at the Special Olympics State Games for three consecutive years. The USA Games take place once every four years, and qualification is by draw.
“We hadn’t been lucky, so we hadn’t been able to go,” Wright said. “But this year, we got lucky.”
Hudson Adams-Farley, 17, is one of the newest members of the team who joined about a year ago. He said being able to compete at the USA Games has provided him with an incredible experience and further knowledge about the sport he loves.
“I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know before,” he said. “Even now, I’m still learning. It’s just been a whole learning experience, which is perfect, because I love this sport the most.”
Competition wasn’t easy during the games. In fact, DeVaughn Clarke, 20, recalls having some fierce opponents on the opposite side of the net.
“The teams were such high-level (teams),” he said. “It was the most fun we’ve had in a while, because the competition was so high. … It was scary, (because) we were up, and we ended up losing the lead. We got to like 20-21, and it was the last push to get 25. We started stressing for a little bit.”
Christian Borunda, 17, played every game during the USA Games. But, during the last five minutes of the final game, he was on the bench.
“I felt so much nerves,” he said. “When they made the last point, I was so happy because I was nervous, but they made it happen. It was such a great feeling.”
Kevin Roberts, 19, was a huge asset to the team during the hardest moments.
“I helped athletes (who) were having some problems adjusting, making sure they were not getting in their head,” he said. “I was approaching them, telling them it was already over, so they wouldn’t get in their head. Building up their confidence, that was my big role.”
Being a part of Special Olympics since she was in fifth grade has inspired Hannah Sauers, 18, to pursue a career in special education.
“It’s the best thing in the world,” she said. “It helped me choose my profession. … I also coach a team that has mostly kids with disabilities on it.”
As the only girl in the team, Sauers feels protected by all the boys, and said, “They always make sure I feel included.”
Competing at the USA Games was nerve-wracking but exciting for some of the athletes. It was a new and completely different experience.
“There was never a dull moment,” Jacob Craft said. “At first I was nervous, but at the end, it was a lot of fun. There were a lot of people I got to meet.”
After winning gold, the team celebrated with the royal treatment at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
“I had been to Disney when I was in elementary school,” Joshua Simard said. “But this time was different. You could just walk up to an ice cream stand and they would give it to you.”
Overall, the team lived a once-in-a-lifetime experience, winning gold during their first participation ever in the USA Games.
“It was a close game, and we were pulling ahead,” Simard said. “We were the ones giving them points, and we were like, ‘We’ve got to get out of our heads and not make mistakes.’ Being able to do that and overcome the mistakes — and just pull through and win — it was a good time.”
“We put in so much work and worked so hard for so long,” Clarke said. “It was a surreal moment.”
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