Jennifer Buys quickly deflected all questions about her.
As her team prepared for a tournament, the Peninsula High School Unified Basketball coach made sure the focus was on her team. Her philosophy is simple: It’s not about her and it’s not about a single player. It’s always about being a part of something greater than yourself.
It’s that type of motivation that helped the Peninsula Seahawks Unified Basketball team win the Washington State High School Unified Basketball District 3 championship, 42-36, against Foss High School Feb 11.
Though it’s officially called Special Olympics Unified Sports, normalcy is the true name of the game.
The program joins people with and without intellectual disabilities to play together as equals on the same co-ed team. On a unified basketball team, three special-education students called “athletes” are on the court with two general-education students called “partners.”
For Buys, that’s where the distinction between athletes and partners ends.
Everyone wears the same green Seahawk jerseys. Everyone celebrates when a teammate makes a shot. And when the team wins a district championship, everyone gets the same medal. The program promotes inclusion and friendship, and bridges a social gap between those with and without disabilities.
“It’s unbelievable the types of relationships you see built between students of all abilities,” Buys said about the athletes and partners.
The partners are there to help the athletes get into the right position on offense and defense. They also make sure they pass the ball equally to their teammates.
Unified sports are mainly for the athletes who don’t always have the same opportunities as their schoolmates, but that doesn’t mean the partners don’t get anything out of it. Buys, who also coaches Unified Soccer in the spring, said she makes it a point to teach her partner players the difference between being a helper and being a teammate.
“(Partners) know they can help the athletes with something; it’s great to be a helper,” said Buys. “But a teammate understands that everybody has something to learn from each other, no matter their abilities.”
It’s that “greater than yourself” mentality that Buys used to build the Unified sports program at PHS. She credits 2020 PHS graduate Jonah Derrick for helping bring the idea to the school in 2019. Jonah, his parents John and Amy, and former special education teacher Joelle Rickard did all the legwork with Special Olympics and the Peninsula School District to get it launched.
A special education teacher in the school district for 25 years, Buys now is a success coach at both PHS and Gig Harbor High School. She says in that role she’s able to support all kids and “make school right for everyone” — another area where Buys promotes inclusion and equity.
Buys had a successful career in athletics which, combined with her special education background, makes her a unique fit for the Unified sports program. After graduating from PHS she played rugby for Central Washington University before joining the U.S. national team from 1996-98. Buys had two stints as a Peninsula boys and girls soccer coach, from 1998-2003 and again from 2014-19, taking time in between to raise her two sons.
“I’ve done a lot of cool things in sports, but (coaching Unified) is the thing I’m most proud of,” she said. “Every single time we get together something unexpected happens that brings a tear of joy to my eye.”
Buys believes the importance of Unified sports goes beyond the court.
“The opportunity for these athletes to be recognized with a medal is life-changing for them,” she said. “It means everything that we can give our athletes an opportunity to play for something they can hold onto forever.”
But as quick as Buys is to pass any praise about the program to her athletes and partners, they’re just as fast sending it back. They know, in many ways, without someone like her a program like this wouldn’t exist.
“She’s nice and smart, and just a really good person,” said athlete Jack Hodges, who also swims with Special Olympics.
Mark Slocum, who has been a part of a Buys-coached team for four years, says she’s the reason he continues to play. “She teaches us how to be good members of a team and lets us have fun together.”
First year athlete Alice Casey agreed. “She’s a great person to talk to and makes it exciting to play with my team. It gives us a chance to hang out with friends.”
It’s that type of harmony on the hardwood that epitomizes Buys’ “greater than yourself” philosophy. It’s not about the coaches, it’s not about the athletes and it’s not about the partners — it’s about the connection they make together.
“Everyone should come watch a Unified sports event. It’ll change who you are,” Buys said. “Seeing these kids together is the best part of humanity.”
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