Seabreeze, which represented Team Florida, defeated Team Rhode Island 35-21 in the bronze medal game.
Seabreeze High School’s unified basketball team flew over 3,000 miles to compete in the Special Olympics USA Games on July 1-6 in Washington. And when the team arrived at the airport in Seattle, members’ expectations of what was to come were immediately blown away.
There were cheer squads at the terminal and all throughout the airport, at the train station and along the streets leading toward the University of Washington, where the team was to stay.
When Seabreeze’s players and coaches, who represented Team Florida, strolled 2-by-2 into the university’s football stadium for the opening ceremony, thousands of fans packed the seats around them.
“There were people everywhere with signs, clapping, high-fiving, shaking hands, hooting-and-hollering for all the different teams from all the different states,” said Anthony McLoughlin, the team’s head coach. “We felt like we were a professional basketball team. We felt like celebrities.”
After defeating three-straight teams, Seabreeze faced Team Vermont on July 3. The game went into overtime, with both squads battling back-and-forth. A Vermont unified partner dunked in the last three seconds of the extra period to win 50-48. Team Vermont went on to win the gold medal.
Seabreeze lost one more game, a 38-31 contest to eventual silver medal winner Team Connecticut, before squaring off against Team Rhode Island in the bronze medal game on July 5.
The bronze medal game produced one of the top highlights of the entire trip.
Athlete Jasmine Taylor, who had scored one other basket the entire week, drove to the hoop in the final minute against Rhode Island. She released a shot that clanged off the side of the rim — but she was fouled.
Only one of her teammates managed to sink a free throw prior to Taylor’s trip to the free throw line.
Taylor sank both of them.
Her teammates on the court went wild, the bench went wild and the entire gym went wild cheering her on. Seabreeze defeated Team Rhode Island 35-21 to earn the bronze.
“They were happy,” McLoughlin said. “But they knew we could have beat Connecticut. We could have beat Vermont. They were good competition for us.”
The outstanding sportsmanship shown by every team at the Games softened the loss, though. Players wished their opponents good luck, gave hugs and high-fived — win or lose.
“That’s the kind of stuff you don’t always see in competitive high school sports,” assistant coach Vanessa Emerson said. “It was moving to see. The hugs, the high-fives, the cheers. It didn’t matter what team you were on. Everybody got them.”
The experience touched McLoughlin, who, along with Emerson, serves as a special education teacher at Seabreeze.
“We do this because of our love for them and the joy that it brings us to work with these students,” he said. “To see them excited, to see them being treated like that, to see them receive that kind of recognition is amazing. For some, it would bring a tear to their eye. I’m not much of a crier, though.”
“I am,” Emerson joked.