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Teammates: Six local H.S. duos receive CIAC Awards in Unified Sports

An 18-year-old Unified Sports athlete from Old Lyme High School, Katie Zbierski, was the recent recipient of the 2020 Mike Savage Teammate Award, bestowed upon her by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference. She received the award along with Old Lyme partner Bella Flagge.

Zbierski, along with her mom, Karen, was being interviewed on FaceTime for a story about her honor. She was asked about the party she had for her birthday, Feb. 19. Katie quickly flipped the phone around, at first to Karen's bewilderment.

But Katie was giving the interviewer a better look at a photograph of that very event. As it turns out, it also was a perfect illustration of her favorite Unified sport. She loves to bowl. It was a depiction, too, of her role as a teammate. Several other members of the Old Lyme Unified team, Bella, Skye, Evan and Lauren, were by her side for an outing to the Groton Bowling Center.

Zbierski, a former medalist in bowling at the Special Olympics, beat everyone that day.

Unified Sports is an affiliate of the Special Olympics, dedicated to promoting social inclusion. It pairs those with and without intellectual disabilities, creating teammates of varying sizes and abilities but those that are not unlike any other teammates as far as their dedication and camaraderie.

"She has her own bowling ball and bowling shoes," Karen Zbierski said. "I can't keep up with Katie. ... The kids that joined Unified are so interesting. They're great kids and they help out the kids to learn sports.

"It's nice for (Katie) to get out and be with peers her age. It's amazing the inspiration. If you're the mom or you're the coach and you say something, it's different. If a peer says, 'C'mon. C'mon, Katie,' she does it. It's like, 'I just said the same exact thing. How come you're listening to this other kid?'"

Zbierski and Flagge, both juniors, were were one of six sets of local high school teammates and two middle school pairs to earn CIAC distinction as Mike Savage Award winners.

Other high school award recipients were Bacon Academy's Kyle Denker and Adrian Ritchotte, Fitch's Max Grossman and Khamisi Goode, Montville's Sydney Winakor and Shayla Lombardo-Brown, Norwich Free Academy's Emma Hargreaves and Wendy Enslow and Waterford's Shannon Carter and Andrew Edwards.

Awards also went to Alex Clapper and Logan Montgomery of Ledyard Middle School and Morgan Sadler and Logan Howard of Kelly STEAM Magnet Middle School in Norwich.

The annual banquet for the honorees was disappointingly canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. But how did Zbierski feel to win?

"Happy," she said with a smile.

"Bella and Katie, as a duo, they're quite the pair," said Old Lyme science teacher Christine Corah, who coaches the school's Unified program. "Bella has a way of interacting with Katie that brings out the silliness. They do a great job of pulling out great qualities with each other. Bella, she can be quiet, too, but when they're with each other, they just blossom into these exuberant people."

At Old Lyme, the Unified group meets twice a week. They've competed against other schools in soccer, basketball, bowling, track and field and last year Corah put on a field day with nine different teams from the Shoreline area, complete with Wiffle ball and hula hoops.

"It's a lot of fun being with this community," Corah said. "They're such a silver lining on your hardest days. You bring together a group of students that might not interact with each other. They start to sit together or they're visiting each other at the lunch table. It gave you a whole different sense of purpose."

••••

Waterford boasts the 2019 Connecticut High School Coaches' Association Coach of the Year for Unified Sports in Colleen Lineburgh, whose affiliation with the Special Olympics, she once estimated, goes back 40 years or so.

The school also has a Unified physical education class first period of the day rotating between teachers Andy Walker and Zeth Nolda, a group so enthusiastic that Walker had to hold a Zoom video conference over April vacation because the participants didn't want to take a week off.

Carter, a senior who will attend Three Rivers Community College with hopes of eventually becoming a police officer — her father Dell is a Norwich policeman — was a four-year member of the field hockey team. She describes Edwards, a Unified athlete who loves basketball and has won medals on multiple occasions in Special Olympics swimming, as "just a ball of joy."

"Fun fact: He's such a smart kid, he knows everything about old cars or cars in general," Carter said of Edwards, also a senior. "He has so much energy. ... We start off the day with Unified sports. They bring joy to my day."

Stephanie Courtad-Edwards, Andrew's mother, said her son was honored to receive the CIAC award and picked out a special spot for it. She often watches Andrew on the Zoom conferences with his Unified teammates and can't help but be uplifted.

"It's such a positive thing to see," she said."To see the kids, it tugs at your heart. It shows humanity. It shows goodness. They have a buddy or a friend. They're encouraged by these kids.

"The kids all miss each other terribly. It's hard for the kids to understand what's happening (not being able to attend school). 'When's it going to be done?' He misses out on the social aspect. He misses his friends terribly."

••••

Grossman, a senior baseball player at Fitch, joined the school's Unified program just two years ago. It was then Grossman realized that Unified Sports wasn't just about him giving his time — which seemed scarce due to his commitment to baseball — it was about what he was getting back.

"It's amazing to watch and be a part of," Grossman said. "We went to Stonington during basketball and we ended up getting pizzas and all sitting together; everyone loves pizza so why not? It's more than just your own team, it's building a community within a community.

"We still go to win no matter what," he added with a laugh. "We're trying to beat anybody in our way."

He said Goode, also a senior, is "good at getting everyone's attention, he loves to make people laugh." He characterized Unified advisors Stacey Noreika and Christina Scala as "amazing."

Flagge at Old Lyme and Winakor at Montville, likewise, said they get as much as they give from Unified Sports. Flagge, a junior member of the fencing team, and Winakor, a senior girls' soccer player, both already intended to major in education in college and now plan to add special education to their class lists.

"I just joined Unified this year," said Winakor, who is set to attend Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I. "I really just didn't know a ton about it. I didn't know how to get involved. Miss (Nicole) McComic, the new coach, asked me if I would be interested. I'm so happy I met that coach; I think she has a way of inspiring the teammates.

"I met so many friends and had so many great experiences. I'm sad that it's all over. I'm so grateful I joined. I get the chills thinking about it."

Lombardo-Brown, also a Montville senior, loves basketball, Winakor said.

"She's a basketball girl. That's her thing," Winakor said. "She's in a wheelchair. That's her spot. It's a Unified hoop; there are a lot of Unified teams we play that need that hoop. She loves basketball ... the smile on her face. She's honestly the most compassionate person I know. She can bring a smile to anybody's face."

••••

Courtad-Edwards said she can think of "nothing negative" to say about her son's Unified Sports experience at Waterford. In fact, each new description of a program or teammate in the region brings that same unwavering positivity.

At NFA, Hargreaves and Enslow were both four-year Unified participants. Hargreaves was a Unified co-captain this year and also co-president of the Unified Club, responsible for organizing activities such as Unified dances. Enslow took part in Unified soccer, basketball, volleyball, track, cheerleading and dance and was a four-year member of NFA's Special Olympics Speed Skating Team.

"I asked Emma to describe her relationship with Wendy," NFA Unified coach Chris Staley wrote in an email. "She said, 'Wendy is so outgoing. She was always excited to see all of her teammates — she usually gave everyone a huge hug, then wanted to talk and catch up. I loved her positive energy — that was something that always inspired me.'

"I asked Wendy to describe her relationship with Emma. She said, 'Emma is such a good person to be around. She is kind and fun and easy to make friends with. She was one of the people I most looked forward to seeing at Unified."

Bacon Academy coach Anna DiPierro said Denker, the All-Eastern Connecticut Conference Division II goalie last season in boys' lacrosse, has been a Unified participant all four years, while this was Ritchotte's first year at Bacon.

"(Denker) is a caring and thoughtful individual who goes above and beyond for the Unified Sports athletes," DiPierro said. "He has formed lifelong bonds with the athletes. (Ritchotte) was motivated and enthusiastic and thoroughly enjoyed being a member of the team."

At Fitch, staff members recently surprised graduating seniors by delivering their caps and gowns, along with celebratory yard signs, to their homes.

Grossman and Goode both received a visit from Noreika and Scala, representing the Unified program. Grossman said it was "special" to have them as makeshift couriers.

"We're all close athletes and partners. During study hall, we all play board games during that time and talk about what we did over the weekend," he said. "We got to know each other on a personal level."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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