CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. (WKBW) — Look up on the wall in the Cheektowaga High School gym and you'll see a unified basketball banner, honoring a program that continues to grow.
"It just gives a small fraction of how much time and effort all of our kids over the last seven years have been putting into the unified program," said coach Brian Pane.
It's a program that's so important, allowing those with special abilities to play basketball and excel. For the athletes, unified basketball is everything. It's a way for them to compete and be a part of a team.
And soon, the Cheektowaga Warriors will be doing something really special.
"It's kind of nerve-wracking," said teammate Markeith Mingo.
"Yea I'm kind of nervous to go to the Olympic games, but I'm actually happy to go," added Johnathon Robinson.
That's right. The Cheektowaga unified team will be competing in the 2022 Summer Olympic Games in Florida from June 5th-10th. They'll be representing not just Cheektowaga and Western New York, but the entire Empire State.
"It's only us nine athletes with the three coaches that are going with us that are chosen to represent New York unified basketball," athlete Laini Buchnoski said. "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity."
It's an opportunity that came about last Fall. After winning the previous year's end of season tournament, coach Pane received a call from the committee, asking if they'd be interested in tossing their hat in the ring to represent New York at the Summer Games. He said yes. Weeks later, they were the lucky ones chosen.
From that call, the coaches have been working to make this trip a special one. They've been practicing, they've been learning, and they've been embracing this chance to grow as a team.
"They really want us to go down and play meaningful games," Pane said. "They don't want anyone blown out, but they also want our athletes who've been working really hard to have the opportunity to showcase their abilities."
The team will play in four to five preliminary games so the committee can get a better idea as to what the many divisions will look like. Once the Warriors are place din a division with others who have the same level of play as them, they'll be competing in what they call the "medal round". The goal is to bring back the gold medal, but they also know there's more to unified basketball than just winning.
"One thing we've always preached is to play with your heart first, play with passion, and have fun," Pane said.
"It's all to have fun," Buchnoski added. "To just enjoy each other's presence."
The Cheektowaga unified basketball team isn't the only Western New York region athletes who will be traveling and competing. Six other athletes will be competing as individuals. They are as follows:
- Pamela Elberson of Cheektowaga (Erie County), swimming
- Joshua Holsinger of Frewsburg (Chautauqua County), bocce
- Justin Latimer of Mayville (Chautauqua County), bocce
- Kristen Massey of Houghton (Allegany County), athletics
- Michael Potter of Fillmore (Allegany County), bocce
- Derek Warren of Akron (Erie County), swimming