Athletes learn the power of unity

May 2, 2024
Left, Morning Star Catholic school athlete, Colt, and his Bishop Moore partner, Amelia, run to the finish at a Unified Sports track and field event. The inaugural team made it to the state championship taking place May 15 at the University of Central Florida in Jacksonville. (MIKO JIMENEZ)

ORLANDO | When Bishop Moore and Morning Star Catholic school athletes combined their love of sports and respect for one another, they displayed a hallmark of the Catholic faith — all are one in the Body of Christ.

Typically competing in separate events through the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) and other Special Olympics programs respectively, this year the schools combined their talents to form one team competing in the 2024 Unified Sports track and field games. The inaugural team placed fifth out of 14 teams headed to the state championships May 15.

Made up of equal students from Bishop Moore Catholic High School and Morning Star Catholic School, Unified events are sponsored through Special Olympics with the goal of promoting social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences. The idea is to bring together people with and without intellectual disabilities to foster friendship, understanding and inclusion.

Carolista Ware, track and field coach at Bishop Moore, jumped at the opportunity to develop the Unified team after the FHSAA allowed Bishop Moore and Morning Star to be considered one entity.

“I was so excited when they agreed to allow this to happen,” she said. “When I brought the idea to administration, they never looked back and let us run with it.”

She quickly enlisted the support of assistant coaches Amy Geltz and Lorraine La Morte to devote “the energy (the team) deserves.” Training began in February and the team has practiced every Wednesday since. Morning Star athletes and their Bishop Moore partners have competed in shot put, mini javelin, running long jump, 100 meters, 400/800 meter runs and relays throughout the Spring semester, hoping to win the coveted state championship at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, May 15.

Being the team’s first year, Ware acknowledged she didn’t think the team would rank high, so she is thrilled they qualified for the state competition.

“Regardless of the outcome at the state championship, I know both communities have benefited greatly from inclusion as a whole,” she said. “The ability for people to treat every human with dignity is what I would hope to accomplish.”

Spreading the message that all are one and each is endowed with inherent dignity by God is the main reason Bishop Moore partner Jillian W. tried out for the team. “I love hanging out with all the athletes and showing them what a real team is, showing them inclusion and doing everything through Christ,” she said, adding she loves sharing how amazing, competitive, fun and inspiring the team is.

Bishop Moore Unified team partner, Paige, left, encourages Morning Star athlete, Kai on the last leg of the race. (MIKO JIMENEZ)

For Paige R., another Bishop Moore partner, the entire track and field experience was new, but her excitement over working with the Morning Star athletes helped her overcome her reluctance. “I really wanted to become a team with them and spread (the message of) inclusion on our campus. I thought this was a great way to do that,” she said.

Watching the Morning Star students succeed was icing on the cake for Paige. “Seeing them cross the finish line, throw the shot put far or do the long jump really puts a smile on my face,” she said. “I loved seeing them so happy and accomplishing something maybe they thought they couldn’t do and doing it to the best of their ability.”

Colt, one of the Morning Star athletes, so enjoyed the experience that he is looking forward to putting his skills to the test on the track at the state championship. Fellow classmate, Gabby, credited her success to her Bishop Moore partner who made it “fun and easy for her.”

Others were confident from the beginning. “I wanted to be on the Unified Track Team to get all the fame that I deserve,” said Gabriel boldly. “But mostly, because I want to be like Bishop Moore one day.” He said the best part of the meets so far was the long jump, in which he excels.

Morning Star athlete, Olivia, right, seeks to be “the fastest girl on the planet”, as she competes on the Unified Sports Track and Field team with her Bishop Moore partner, Lanie. To their left, Gabriela and Raelin do their part for a team win. The inaugural team of equal players with and without intellectual disabilities will participate in the state competition May 15 in Jacksonville. (MIKO JIMENEZ)

The Unified games encouraged Olivia, “to be the fastest girl on the planet.” Asked if the competition intimidated her, the Morning Star athlete promptly replied, “No, because I’m ready and I’m tough enough.” She said she enjoyed hanging out with partners, fellow athletes and coaches.

Thomas Doyle, president of Bishop Moore and Morning Star, has watched friendships across both campuses flourish over the course of his tenure and the schools’ frequent shared activities.

“The students from both Morning Star and Bishop Moore are amazing young men and women who truly care for each other,” he said, adding the students’ ability to build each other up and work together to achieve success in the first year of participation in Unified Sports. He called the relationship between the students “a true reward and gift to both students” and said ,“they are better people for that experience.”

“There is excitement and pride through witnessing athletes’ success, dedication, and commitment,” said Alicia Abbey, Morning Star principal. “Unified Sports has only strengthened and helped build the inclusive environment we have been working toward among our Catholic sister schools.”

She said Unified Sports’ goal aligns closely with the principles of the Catholic faith, promoting dignity and respect. “It helps foster a culture of compassion and empathy. It builds community, friendships and belonging. And it promotes and embodies the Gospel values,” Abbey said.

Even more, it enables those involved “to be the presence of Christ to one another,” said Father Roberto Marquez, chaplain of both schools. “Christ who encourages us, lifts us up, and challenges us to be a sign of His love
to one another; it shows how Christ leaves us to the care of each other, working together to build up one another, which makes for a stronger Church, a stronger body of Christ.

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, May 02, 2024