Zachery Gender and Emmanuel Molina have a bond that only three years of playing sports together could create. The two have been paired up at George Washington High School’s unified soccer program, which matches up one athlete with intellectual disabilities with one athlete without intellectual disabilities based on their skill level.
The pair flew down to Florida with their coach Kathleen Paul on Monday after they were selected to compete in the Special Olympics Unified Sports All-Star Experience, presented by MLS Works and ESPN. While this won’t be the first time either of them play in a big stadium, it may be their last time together. Next year Zach will join the school’s new transition while Manny moves on to study at Temple University.
But that’s in the future. For now, they’re focused on the game.
“I imagine a whole stadium with a big crowd of people from a bunch of different places enjoying the sport,” Manny said.
Zach and Manny were selected to compete in the game after Paul nominated them to represent the school. On Wednesday morning they’ll play in the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, where they will compete with and against other unified partners from high schools all across the country.
The school’s unified sports program, made possible through Philadelphia Special Olympics, has students partnering and participating in sports such as soccer, track and field and bocce every day. Students who don’t participate will show up and cheer when games are hosted at the school, Paul said.
“It’s a whole school community thing,” Paul said. “Through the program they develop these friendships and bonds. It’s something you don’t have to teach them how to behave or interact with – they just get it.”
The duo were the perfect choice for Paul to nominate. Zach (or “Mr. Hustle” as Paul affectionately called him) will do anything to help out the team, and Manny is a natural leader who helps out the athletes before Paul even asks him to. They also love the adrenaline rush that comes with the game – playing in front of a big crowd motivates Manny to compete to the best of his ability.
“Your performance increases when you’re in front of so many people and it motivates you and forces you to win,” he said.
Heading into his junior year, this may be Zach’s last chance in a while to participate in unified soccer through the school. Next year he will participate in the school’s new transition program, which will teach independent life skills for after high school. The program will have its participants going out into the community every day to gain real-world experience, meaning Zach needs to step down from the school’s unified soccer program that is taught during the day as a class.
“Unfortunately it means I lose him, but he’ll still be involved in some way,” Paul said. He may be able to fill in as scorekeeper or even assistant coach for the school’s unified bocce team.
Traveling is nothing new for Zach, having previously traveled to places like Denver and Boston to compete. He also plays on the school’s varsity bowling team, swims and skis for fun and recently just became an Eagle Scout. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have interests outside of sports – after high school, he hopes to go to college to become a chef.
On the other hand, when he’s finished at Temple Manny hopes to open his own business or gym that fuses his passions, soccer and fitness.
Playing unified soccer with partners provides a different experience than standard soccer because you always have to think and work with your partner, Manny said.
“It wakes something up in your body that doesn’t happen often,” he said. “I think everything is more emotional than physical.”
Of course the losses still hurt, just as they would in any sport, but to Zach, Manny and Paul, the sport is about much more than just that.
“These kids genuinely care about each other,” Paul said.