John Niski has joined our staff as Assistant Director, Special Olympics-Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) Unified Sports®. He will work to engage more schools in participating in Unified Sports and raise awareness about the achievements of student athletes and their coaches.
SOCT: Tell us about your background - and favorite sport to play/watch.
John: I recently retired from the Shelton Public School system after 36 years as a teacher, coach, and administrator. For the past 17 years, I served as the Athletic Director in charge of both high school and middle school sports. I also served as the Supervisor of Health and Physical Education for the entire school district. I enjoy watching high school sports and participating in bocce and bass fishing.
SOCT: How did you get involved in Special Olympics Unified Sports?
John: As the Shelton athletic director, I wanted to make certain that our athletes and partners who were involved in the Unified Sports program were getting all of the benefits that they deserved, so I started going to practices and then organizing games and of course I was hooked right away! There is no better way to spend an afternoon than participating in a Unified Sports event. The pure sense of joy and feeling of purpose is unparalleled in any other activity.
SOCT: Why do you feel that Unified Sports is so important?
John: I believe that participation in Unified Sports is important because it gives every single person in a school community the opportunity to participate in activities where they can feel valued, where they can contribute meaningfully, and where they can develop relationships, athletic skills, fitness levels, and expand their social friendships in a fun, competitive, and welcoming environment.
I believe that students at every grade level should have the opportunity to participate in Unified Sports activities because there is so much for each of us to learn about our classmates, teammates, and ourselves. Friendship, comradery, competition, and sportsmanship are experiences that are not limited to any specific age or ability group.
SOCT: Can you give an example of how you've seen Unified Sports change a student's life.
John: I've been extremely fortunate to watch relationships develop and friendships grow between athletes and partners because of their involvement in Unified Sports. Students who would typically be ignored in the hallways of a giant school and get lost in the massiveness of high school have become more confident and feel a part of the overall community because they are recognized and welcomed by some of the popular kids who happen to be their partners on the Unified team.
School can be a difficult place for any teenager, but even more so for those with disabilities. When athletes and partners continue to foster their connections outside of the gymnasium, it brings to light the real purpose of the Unified programs and it makes a world of difference to everyone involved.
I'm amazed each and every day about how caring and unassuming our partners are once they get involved in Unified Sports programs. The relationships that develop today between athletes and partners because of these programs were unheard of when I was younger, yet it comes so naturally to them now. It is a program that is truly changing the culture of our world and what could be better than that?