“Unified sports opens up a lot of doors for people and I will say, for people with and without intellectual disabilities. People get to see (the athlete) for their abilities not what they can't do but what they can do.” This is how Patti Doherty, VP Schools and Community Development describes the Special Olympics inclusive sports model being adopted by school districts across Massachusetts and through the US.
Jake Blatnica of Natick, MA probably shouldn’t have been able to play sports, not at the high school level, anyway. Yet, today he is competing at the highest level in Massachusetts and was named the Special Olympics High School Athlete of the Year by USA Today.
As his mother, Becky describes it, “When Jake was a baby he was sick a lot. He was always getting ear infections or respiratory infections and so he missed a lot of the milestones as he was developing.” She added, “We were also told that he had hypotonia, which is low muscle tone.” In addition to the physical challenges Jake was working to overcome, he was diagnosed with an intellectual disability. These circumstances might have discouraged athletics and certainly would have made it difficult to participate in traditional youth sports programs.
With the support of his family and community, Jake defied the expectations of his pediatricians who warned he might not be able to walk, jump, or even communicate well with others. Today, Jake is excited to play sports alongside his classmates and friends at Natick High School. While this may seem like something that comes as a given to many, Jake’s father, Tony described his family’s journey, “As a parent of a child with an intellectual disability… when they’re younger, you don’t expect your child to be a part of a team.” However, this doesn’t have to be accepted as a given. “We got to high school, and they had the Unified teams and it just, it changed everything.”Jake now plays interscholastic Unified basketball and Unified track &field, competing alongside teammates with and without intellectual disabilities.
In 2020, Just as the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold, Jake hurt his knee, after some tests and an MRI, it was discovered that he tore hisACL. He was now experiencing the full gamut of what it is like to be an athlete. He had surgery followed by 10 months of physical therapy, but he was determined to make it back to the court and to the track in the spring. After getting into the last basketball game of the season, he was ready to take the track by storm. Through all of this, the Blatnica family mantra helped Jake focus on what was important, “Why do we fall down?” they ask “So, we can get back up” they respond.
And because he has been able to get back up after each setback he has encountered, Jake is seen as a leader in his school, a great teammate on the training ground, and a star athlete on the court and track. USAToday clearly saw what everyone sees when they look at Jake – the epitome of aSpecial Olympics Athlete.