Lake Braddock Secondary School’s varsity basketball teams both ended their seasons in February, but students at the Burke school still filled their gymnasium’s bleachers on Mar. 9 to cheer for some of their peers.
This time, however, the players were much less accustomed to the crowds and attention.
That evening, Lake Braddock hosted Annandale High School and Robinson Secondary School in a doubleheader for its first-ever Fanquest, a competitive event organized to showcase the skills of Special Olympics student athletes.
Lake Braddock’s unified team, which combines players with and without intellectual disabilities, beat Annandale Unified 40-30 before a contest between Lake Braddock and Robinson’s traditional teams, which just have Special Olympics athletes, ended in a tie with 24 points each.
About 60 athletes from the three schools participated in all.
While Special Olympics teams play regular games and tournaments with each other all the time, Fanquest events offer athletes the opportunity to compete in front of a crowd with all the hoopla that normally accompanies high school sports, including a morning pep rally, pre-game tailgate, and cheerleaders.
“Fanquest is about inclusion and community involvement,” Lake Braddock multiple disabilities teacher and volunteer coach Heather Finch said. “[It’s about] making sure that students with disabilities show off their skills and abilities, and they’re not just seen as students that need help. They’re students that can do something, that can make a difference and play.”
Founded in 1968, Special Olympics Virginia provides year-round sports training and competition for both adults and children with intellectual disabilities.
Though there are community-based teams, more schools in Fairfax County and around the U.S. have started to establish their own programs. Special Olympics Virginia works with the Virginia Department of Education and the Virginia High School League (VHSL), as well as individual school districts, to support school-based teams and initiatives.
Lake Braddock launched its Special Olympics program, which currently consists of basketball and track and field teams, in November 2016, but other Fairfax County schools have been involved for longer.
Robinson, for instance, has hosted annual Fanquest tournaments for the past five years, most recently on Feb. 3 when the Rams competed with Lake Braddock, Frost Middle School, and Paul VI Catholic High School.
McLean High School and Woodson High School have also hosted Fanquest multiple times in the past.
According to Lake Braddock assistant principal Antonio DiBari, the Burke school first decided to try organizing its own Fanquest after Robinson invited the Bruins to participate in last year’s event.
“We saw this amazing platform to showcase their sports to our school community, so we decided to have our own Fanquest at Lake Braddock,” Lake Braddock middle school assistant principal Brett Garner said.
In addition to inviting Robinson as a courtesy for letting them participate in the past two years, Lake Braddock extended an invitation to Annandale, which is in the first year of its Special Olympics program and only just competed in its first basketball game on Jan. 14.
For a first attempt, Lake Braddock’s Fanquest appeared to be a definite success.
Students with all different kinds of abilities attended the event as athletes, volunteers, and spectators. The Lake Braddock Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) collected donations for the school’s Special Olympics track team, which competes in the spring.
George Brodie has been coaching local Special Olympics teams for younger children since his son, Gavin, was 8, but he always wanted to see Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) adopt more school-based programs in part because he believes it creates a stronger sense of community for the athletes.
Now, Gavin is a junior at Lake Braddock, and he played on the Rams’ traditional team at Fanquest.
“I think it’s most important to develop the relationships between the athletes and their peers, because those are relationships that will last their whole life,” Brodie said. “A lot of help comes from parents and adults, but for a lasting, meaningful relationship, it means so much more coming from a peer at their school.”