The Schmidts are all in the family

All five members of the Schmidt family, including Unified partner Andrew, participate in the Special Olympics and its Unified Sports program. Courtesy Special Olympics Maryland

Our family has been actively involved in Special Olympics for 12 years. It started with my brother Mike and my mom, Nancy. Mike, the Special Olympics athlete in our family, first got involved with swimming. However, swimming was quickly thrown aside when he learned there was a softball program.

Mike's initial reaction after his first Special Olympics softball practice was: "This is really where I belong." He was only 12 years old. This led to his involvement in soccer and basketball. My mom became the head coach of the Special Olympics Maryland Harford County softball team shortly thereafter. About five or six years ago, the rest of our family decided to make the transition from being Special Olympics spectators to Special Olympics Unified Sports partners so we could play on the teams with the athletes.

My dad, Mike, my brother Dan and I all got involved playing Unified soccer and basketball. This gave us a wonderful opportunity to grow closer as a family and play competitive sports together. With the way the teams were placed in their divisions, we were on teams with each other some years, but in other years we were separated. We just always tried to make the teams work in whatever way we could whether we were coaching or being partners, and mostly that meant not playing together. However, in 2017, the Schmidt family became a full unit in Unified basketball for the first time. All five members of our family were placed on the same Unified Sports team: the Harford Highlighters. Through hard work and preparation, our team subsequently won the gold medal at Special Olympics Maryland State Games and were selected to represent Maryland at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle.

To me, playing Unified Sports is more than just a volunteer opportunity or a place to just play sports. Unified Sports on a larger scale creates an environment in which people who live with disabilities can play competitive sports with people who do not have the same challenges. This is a unique setting because it opens the door for acceptance and inclusion in the lives of those with special needs. In addition, playing Unified Sports creates the opportunity for people without disabilities to learn more about the special needs community. For me, getting to know my friends who have special needs has been a blessing and an amazing experience.

I have had an incredible time playing Unified Sports and would certainly recommend it to anyone who would like to get involved. As a direct result of being involved with Unified Sports, I believe I have become a less judgmental and more caring and open-minded person. On a more personal level for me, Unified Sports means family. This was the first time since I was 8 that I have had the opportunity to play sports with my brother Mike. Having this opportunity for our entire family, all five of us, to be on the same team is incredible.

Through playing Unified Sports, I've gained a stronger appreciation of people who live with disabilities. It is truly amazing to experience their endless positivity and joy. I can honestly say that I have met more joyful and upbeat people through this program than I will ever meet anywhere else, and just like "us," they all have different skill levels. Many people who are not involved with Special Olympics and related programs will be quick to judge people with special needs. They have many misconceptions that Special Olympics is only for the very impaired. Many people who have not experienced friendship with people with disabilities will look down on or belittle them. Unified Sports creates a bridge between what many people perceive to be two separate communities and integrates them into one. It allows us to see they are "just people." They are the same as everyone else, navigating their way in the world, and they are not their disability.

In the upcoming USA Games, I am most looking forward to building my relationships with my friends from the Unified Sports program and making new friends from around the country. Regarding the sports aspect of our trip, our basketball team has been practicing every week for the past year to prepare for this tournament, and we are ready to go for the gold medal. We are excited for this opportunity to represent Maryland on a national scale, but above all, we want to have a great time, make new friends, play hard and do our best. As it is written in the Special Olympics athlete oath, recited before every Special Olympics competition: "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

Andrew Schmidt joined Special Olympics Maryland in 2012 as a Unified partner. When he isn't competing as a partner, he enjoys his hobbies of playing sports, singing and forensics. Schmidt believes that Team Maryland in basketball will go all the way at the 2018 USA Games July 1-8.