When the Norwalk girls basketball team was putting the finishing touches on a remarkable undefeated season last winter in the championship game at Mohegan Sun, the halftime show featured equally committed athletes who usually don’t get the same attention.

A group of Norwalk parents watched as their kids ran up and down the court, scoring the occasional basket and displaying their skills. When the final horn sounded, you’d be hard pressed to argue which set of parents were the proudest.

These moments are created in large part due to the CIAC’s Unified Sports program, which has experienced tremendous growth over the past three decades. The partnership between Special Olympics Connecticut and the CIAC began in 1992 — the first with any state high school sports association — with the goal of every school having a program for special-needs athletes.

A registered Special Olympics program, Unified Sports combines athletes with and without intellectual disability (or other developmental delays) on teams for training and competition. All Unified Sports teammates are of similar age, and teams are placed in competitive divisions based on their skill abilities, ranging from developmental to recreational to competitive.

Unified Sports are no longer reserved to brief halftime exhibitions to provide entertainment during varsity action. Instead, they have grown to become a part of virtually every athletic department in the state. It’s also contributed to breaking down the barriers with special education students in the school setting. Soccer was the first sport played when the relationship began.

“It’s sports in a more pure way,” said CIAC Unified Director Bob Hale. “I think it’s because you’re not having any animosity against your opponents; the feeling is so positive that it’s just transformational.”

Wilton is among the 97% of CIAC member schools who have some form of Unified program. The school currently has Unified teams competing in basketball and soccer.

In 2018, Wilton High School was recognized as a National Banner Unified Champion School for demonstrating a commitment to inclusion by meeting 10 national standards of excellence.

The popularity of Unified Sports has exploded in recent seasons and a drive toward the lower grades is underway. Age isn’t a barrier to entry in traditional sports, and it shouldn’t be for special needs athletes, Hale said.

“There shouldn’t be an age where kids can’t be included,” Hale said. “If we can get the idea that everyone is an important contributor then we’ll be better as a whole.”

The plan for the future is to get even more schools involved at the middle school level. There are some challenges, however, as there is often no athletic director at this level to facilitate involvement. Getting ADs from towns to push the program onto the lower grades is the best possible solution, Hale added.

An important factor to the recent growth has been the transition in responsibility from the state level to the league commissioners. Leagues have taken more ownership in running events and encouraging its member schools to participate and expand their programs. This has partly occurred because athletic departments have taken ownership from special education departments that some argue are already stretched for time and resources. It’s also allowed events to go from the state level to the local level to accommodate more schools.

Track and basketball dominate the makeup of unified programs across the state, but other sports are slowly coming along. Bowling is a popular winter sport within certain conferences, while volleyball is also on the rise. Though not under the Unified Sports umbrella, schools have added music and theater programs to their offerings.

If traditional sports require the tireless effort of many, Unified takes that to another level. In addition to the coaches who devote their time to the betterment of their kids, student volunteers are the backbone of the program.

“It’s a critical part of the engine,” Hale said. “The thing is they realize they can afford to spend time and give back. But what they get is so much more; they develop so much more from those connections, and it allows (special needs athletes) to make friends and become integrated with the school and create a setting of inclusion.”

Students — who are often athletes from other varsity sports — are paired with special needs athletes to help teach them the game. The relationships built between this exchange go beyond the activity and translate to school.

A drive toward making the games competitive was pitched by the CIAC recently due to the increased popularity, including recent Special Olympics Games being broadcast on ESPN. The pros and cons are obvious.

“We’ve gotten reports people want to be competitive, with leagues having results,” said Al Carbone, the Southern Connecticut Conference commissioner. “I’m not sure where that’s going; does that take away from what the whole objective is? I tread pretty slowly on that.”

The growth of Unified Sports is perceived by some as providing a platform for underappreciated members of the student body. While that is true, there is also the chance to learn a wider life lesson.

“I think it’s a skill lacking in everyone,” Hale said. “It’s education for us on how to interact with folks that are different from us. I find that kids with intellectual disabilities are eager to make new friends; we just have to be more open.”