"Paul Laurance Dunbar High School is one of our state’s top football schools and they are also one of the best at unified bocce. The trophy winning coach of their football team also happens to be their bocce ball coach, and a lot of their football players now play in unified bocce teams.”
The appeal of the sport is in its inclusivity, the social element, and the fact people of all abilities can compete.
"Bocce is a great leveller. You can have the school’s top quarterback - the elite physical specimen - competing alongside his intellectually disabled partner in a unified competition and the partner can be outperforming him."
More than 1,500 athletes with intellectual disabilities and non-disabled partners now play state-wide in indoor and outdoor school programs. More than 200 athletes are involved in the Special Olympics Maryland community-based programs, with around 180 competing in the bocce competition of the most recent Special Olympics Maryland Summer Games.
While COVID-19 has made running competitions more difficult, there’s positivity around 2022 and a growing willingness among athletes and their family members to once again enjoy sport face to face, Mike says.
“I get the sense people want to get back into sports and based on how our numbers are tracking things are coming back to normal.
“Bocce is one of those sports where social distancing can easily be built in – we can spread people out and implement all the recommended precautions, including using one set of balls per player to minimise contact.”
Mike says more than 40 of the ‘Packabocce’ courts have been purchased since 2019 to support the program, making a “huge” difference for organisers and athletes alike.
Not only are the new courts easier to store, transport and set up than the courts they used in the past – around 20 minutes for an inflatable Packaworld court compared to 45 minutes for a PVC pipe court – but they also provide for a better game.
“You can play the rails, bounce the ball off them, and it gives athletes more options. With the old PVC pipe courts the ball would often end up out of play if you tried to bounce it off the rails,” Mike says.
“We used to play open field bocce without courts for some training sessions but now we use courts for those as well as our indoor training and events because the Packaworld courts are so much easier to transport.”
Baltimore City Public Schools Interscholastic Athletics Staff Specialist Tonisha Montgomery agrees, saying the courts have made it possible to run events and take unified sports to more schools in the Baltimore school district she is responsible for.
The Baltimore City Schools Indoor Bocce Tournament in January utilised the 60-foot by 12-foot courts, which have been specially designed to meet the standards required by Special Olympics International Bocce Sports Rules. More than 40 athletes attended, with the unified team from Reginald F. Lewis High School narrowly winning the final.
In the past, setting up for an event like the Baltimore City Public Schools Indoor Bocce Tournament would have taken "my whole life", Tonisha jokes, but the Packaworld courts made it easier for organisers.
"They are a game-changer. I like to get my athletes to help me set up and take down the new courts - it is part of the experience, learning responsibility.”
The next major unified bocce event on the calendar for Maryland is the Interscholastic Unified Sports State Tournament. The event will be held at Washington College in Chestertown, with the top unified teams from all 12 of the state’s school districts competing against each other. A Baltimore City District Tournament is also being planned for April or May.
Packaworld chief executive Peter Roberts said he said the use of Packabocce courts in unified sports program was on the rise in the USA.
“Unified sport is an incredibly powerful concept and it’s great to see it transforming perceptions and the way people play together across the USA.
“Not long ago I was talking with Special Olympics Iowa about the success of their Unified Champion Schools bocce program and to see the same kind of success in Maryland is just outstanding."
> Want more information about our portable bocce courts? Visit our Packabocce product page.
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