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Unified Partners bring soccer joy to Montana's Special Olympians

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Posted at 6:05 AM, May 13, 2021

BILLINGS - The football field at Will James Middle School where a particular core of adults finds one of its biggest thrills playing -- soccer. Who knew practice could produce so much joy?

But that's been the case twice a week (weather permitting) for some of Montana's active Special Olympians.

"They get timed, get points for making goals, points for not knocking over cones, and then they get points for how fast they are," Tiffani Coleman of Special Olympics of Montana told MTN Sports as a handful of competitors scurried through drills behind her.

Special Olympians are sharpening their skills for this weekend's Area Games which start Friday morning at Daylis Stadium in Billings.

Because this season on the soccer pitch Special Olympics of Montana is switching from matches to skills competition, athletes get the thrill of joining with unified partners. In this case, students from Rocky Mountain College who come to practice and do everything the athletes do, including warm up and team up.

"I participated with Special Olympics a little bit in high school and I just wanted to get back into it," said Unified SOMT Partner Chesney Walker. "It can get pretty competitive."

"This group is so fun and I love sports and being active," said fellow student and Unified Partner Lexi Wilson. "It's fun to see the and be able to participate with them. Just scoring a goal is so much fun to them."

"It's a real inclusive program that helps our athletes make friends and compete with someone that's driving them," Coleman said.

Cheyne Kotar survived a motorcycle crash 16 years ago almost to the day of this interview when a car pulled out in front of him. He says doctors told him he'd never walk again, yet here is deeply defying those odds with SOMT.

He appreciates the chance to "see my friends and ignore my reality, I guess."

That reality is head injury. Despite that, Kotar also competes in track and field, bowls, and earns high marks in power lifting. That evident by the size of his biceps, one of which showcases an American flag tattoo that "waves" every time he flexes.

Anna Vanderwende calls herself scrappy. But truth is, she's more inclined to laugh at herself than anything.

"I'm just clutsy and I trip over my own feet," Vanderwende told MTN Sports with a smile. "It turns in to tripping other people. My mom calls me Grace because I'm the clumsiest person you'll over meet. But she also loves me, so she calls me Amazing Grace."

Soccer Night twice a week. One rewarding hour for everybody involved to let go of reality.

"I go home happy, so it brightens up my day," Wilson said.

Or as Vanderwende puts it, "It makes you feel like an orphan puppy that just go adapted, so it feels pretty good."