His weapon of choice weighs just eight pounds, but when Joseph Velasco walks to the line with it firmly in his grip, he knows he is just about unstoppable.

“I like when I bowl a spare or a strike,” Velasco said during a recent bowling match. “I’m excited and proud.”

The young man from Scotia-Glenville was born with a developmental disability. He’s one of 16 members of the school’s Special Olympics unified bowling team, which places athletes with and without special needs together on the same squad.

What You Need To Know

  • Special Olympics New York, which oversees unified sports in the state, was able to start its spring bowling season in March after the increase in the number of people receiving vaccines

  • Unified sports brings athletes with and without special needs together on the same team

  • Special Olympics also runs a winter unified basketball season, which they were not able to hold this year

Velasco may be earning a lot of the applause himself, but his coach says he’s also one of the biggest cheerleaders for teammates like Ben Kline.

“It’s just a tremendous thing to be a part of, the sportsmanship, the kindness, seeing students help each other,” said Andrew Swayne, the team’s coach.

“It’s just fun, you know? Being able to come here and bowl with him, it’s fun,” Kline said.

This spring’s season nearly didn’t happen, but with COVID-19 cases declining and more people receiving vaccines, the leaders of Special Olympics New York, which oversees unified sports, decided it was important to give unified athletes a chance to compete after a full year on the sidelines.

“It’s more than a game; it’s a movement, really,” said Stacey Hengsterman, president and CEO of Special Olympics New York. “It’s a unified movement. Students with and without disabilities can do things together, and that’s what it’s teaching. Unified sports is teaching.”

“It was tough early on to tell them, 'I don’t know if we’re going to bowl,' ” said Ben Pierson, who coaches the unified bowling team at Mohonasen High School. “To finally get that news, they were ecstatic. These guys don’t hide their emotions; they were super happy.”

The Mohonasen team was bowling against Scotia for its most recent match. Normally, the two schools would be side-by-side on the same lanes, but to control the virus’ spread, each team is staying at its hometown alley and submitting the scores virtually.

“They came right in and we had a few practices before we started, and from there, we started our matches, and they’ve adapted and really embraced this whole program,” Pierson said.

The athletes don’t seem to mind the changes.

“It’s really fun,” said teammate Bailey Warner. “Last year was fun, but I feel like this year is more fun because I get out of the house and I get to interact with everybody. It is very exciting.”

“To see the smiles on their faces through the masks and see them actually jumping for joy, it was really exciting to know that I could be a part of it this year,” said Mackenzie Simmons, a varsity bowler who helps out the unified team as a student-coach.

For Velasco, one word comes to mind when describing how it feels to be back rolling spares and strikes with all of his friends.

“It makes me happy,” he yelled, shortly after bowling his second strike of the game.