For Fairfield Ludlowe's Kyle Papa-Stapleton and Molly Roach, participating in the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference's Special Olympics Unified Sports program has been more than just a fun activity. It has been an unforgettable experience they are grateful to be a part of. Recently, the two were recognized for their dedication to the program by receiving the CIAC's One Athlete One Partner award.

The Special Olympics Unified Sports program brings together individuals with intellectual disabilities (athletes) and individuals without intellectual disabilities (partners) on sports teams for training and competition. It pairs an athlete with a partner, and the two compete side-by-side.

At the high school level, students compete in statewide tournaments in soccer, basketball, outdoor track and volleyball. Ludlowe's Unified Sports program has existed for eight years and has become extremely popular. Their athletes also compete in FCIAC tournaments.

Papa-Stapleton, who graduated last year and now participates in the program's 19-21-year-old division, and Roach, a Ludlowe senior, joined Unified Sports as freshmen. They immediately fell in love with it and became heavily involved.

Roach has helped a number of athletes train and competed with them, while Papa-Stapleton has regularly competed in each sport. When talking with them, it is clear just how much they enjoyed Unified Sports.

"I'm thrilled that I've been able to be part of Unified Sports," Roach said. "I have so much fun at practice, and being able to participate in events has been special. I've become friends with a lot of the athletes and hang out with them outside of school."

"I really enjoy spending time with my friends and like playing all the sports," Papa-Singleton said. "And I like watching the other kids play. Doing Unified Sports has been awesome!"

Ludlowe Athletic Director Dave Schultz and program head coach Kim Longobucco, also the Falcons' gymnastics coach, have led Unified Sports for seven years. For the pair, coaching intellectually disabled students has been quite rewarding.

"I really enjoy seeing the smiles our kids have when competing," Schultz said. "It's also great to see how proud their parents are."

"Seeing the kids compete is unbelievable," Longobucco said. "Unified Sports allows them to participate in something they wouldn't be able to do otherwise. And it helps them to build lasting friendships with students that they might not normally interact with."

Schultz and Longobucco each said Papa-Stapleton and Roach were deserving of the One Athlete One Partner award because of the passion they have brought to Unified Sports.

"Kyle has a ton of enthusiasm and is a friend to all in the program, and Molly has a passion for working with special needs kids," Schultz said. "She exemplifies the type of student who's involved with us."

Roach's ability to build friendships with United Sports members is reflected in the kind words Papa-Stapleton said about her. He said that she was fun and very helpful during practice.

Papa-Stapleton and Roach were officially honored with the One Athlete One Partner award at the CIAC Special Olympics Unified Sports Cup Award Banquet on April 29. It recognizes program members who display outstanding dedication and sportsmanship.

After receiving the award, Papa-Stapleton made a heart-felt, impromptu speech in which he thanked Schultz, Longobucco and all the friends he had made in Unified Sports. Roach, Schultz and Longobucco each said that he was the most enthusiastic person at the banquet and that his speech was a wonderful moment.

For Papa-Stapleton and Roach, receiving the award was a happy surprise.

"It's pretty cool to get an award," he said. "I've never gotten one before."

"I was so honored to be recognized," she said. "I never asked for an award."

Danny Atkinson is a freelance reporter