Britta Hesselberg is a student at UW-Madison, where she is studying to become a special education teacher. She’s an active member of the Badgers for Special Olympics club on campus, but she’s been involved with Special Olympics since her high school days at Columbus High School. In addition to being a Unified Partner and fierce advocate for people with intellectual disabilities, Hesselberg has financially supported Special Olympics Wisconsin athletes for years through the Polar Plunge. She’ll be taking the Plunge again this year in Madison on February 15 with her Badgers for Special Olympics team. To find out more about the Polar Plunge, visit PlungeWI.org.
SOWI: Tell us a little bit about how you got started with Unified Sports and what your involvement with Unified Sports looks like these days.
BH: I have been involved with Special Olympics for a long time, but I first started participating in Unified Sports my freshman year of college. I got started in Unified Sports because I had worked with Special Olympics previously and was looking for opportunities to stay involved. When I found Unified Sports, it was right up my alley: I love playing sports and I love Special Olympics! Here at UW-Madison, Unified Sports has become a small community that even feels like a family. Many members, both participants and athletes, have been involved for a while now and new members are always immediately welcomed and included. The actual playing is always competitive, but everyone is always supportive no matter who wins!
SOWI: Was there a moment when you realized you wanted Unified Sports and Special Olympics to be a big part of your life? If so, what was that moment like?
BH: I have known for a long time that Special Olympics would be a huge part of my life. I don’t think there was a particular moment that I knew, but instead it was a collection of moments and friendships I have made over the years that made me realize it wasn’t something I ever wanted to stop being a part of. Reflecting on it now, I feel genuinely lucky to be working with Special Olympics. I love the Special Olympics community so much!
“These are the most inclusive and friendliest people you will ever meet, regardless of if they have a disability or not.”
SOWI: What do you enjoy best about Unified Sports?
BH: I love the competition and friendships of Unified Sports best, hands down. Coming from a very athletic background, I was so excited to see that Special Olympics had begun unified intramurals here on campus. Many people assume that you might have to “go easy” on Special Olympics athletes, but they are quickly mistaken once they start playing. I like to tell people who have never played before that you shouldn’t take it easy on anyone in Unified Sports, because nobody is going to take it easy on you!
I also wanted to mention friendships because I feel that many members in Unified Sports have created amazing bonds and it shows more and more when each new season begins. Members often exchange numbers or social medias so that they can communicate or hang out outside of Unified seasons. Lifelong friendships are definitely formed.
SOWI: Tell us a little bit about a favorite memory you have of playing Unified Sports.
I have so many memories in Unified Sports, but I’d have to say my favorite memory was this past flag football season during the championship game. Time was winding down and the other team scored, tying it up. As soon as the referees signaled “touchdown,” one of the athletes ran as fast as he could up to his teammate that scored. He jumped into his teammate’s arms, screamed and hollered with excitement, all while his teammate twirled him around while he lifted the ball up in the air with pride. Regardless of teams, everyone cheered and smiled because that moment was too precious to forget. It definitely encapsulated how fun Unified Sports is for everyone involved and how close all participants and athletes become.
“My friends who are athletes in Special Olympics have definitely impacted me more than they probably know…. I am the person I am today because of Special Olympics.”
SOWI: What would you tell someone who is nervous or intimidated about the idea of playing Unified Sports with people with ID?
Feeling nervous or intimidated is normal, I definitely felt that way the first time I participated in Unified Sports. But that feeling goes away almost immediately when you start. These are the most inclusive and friendliest people you will ever meet, regardless of if they have a disability or not.
SOWI: How do you think being involved with Special Olympics has changed you as a person?
If Special Olympics has changed me as a person, I would say it has encouraged me to be confident enough to be unapologetically myself. My friends who are athletes in Special Olympics have definitely impacted me more than they probably know. They always encourage me to be myself at events and to have fun. There are so many opportunities to feel optimistic and positive! I feel like it’s hard not to feel excited about what you’re doing once you become so involved in SOWI and their mission. I am the person I am today because of Special Olympics.