Sophie's got game
● By Richard Gaw
Earlier this season, a singular moment occurred during a game in the Kennett Area Park and Recreation Girls Basketball League that defied not only logic, but the general tenants of athletic competition.
With her team leading by a wide margin, Olivia, playing for the opponent's team, suddenly and inexplicably handed the ball to Sophie Kail, an 11-year-old guard with the Regester Associates, Inc. Blue Ducks.
She has known Sophie since kindergarten, and with the encouragement of her teammates, Olivia helped guide Sophie in the direction of the Blue Ducks' basket and soon, members of both teams formed a wall of encouragement around Sophie as she prepared to shoot.
Standing beneath her team's basket, Sophie took three shots. When the third made its way through the basket, parents, coaches, scorekeepers and players on both sides erupted in applause that reverberated around the entire gymnasium, in a joyous echo of noise.
“I began to cry at the scorer's table,” said Pam Ramagano, Kennett Area Park and Recreation League director. “I thought it was such a great moment, because it was a very selfless thing for that player to do. I think Sophie's made us all love this league even more, if that's possible. I love teachable moments like that. These girls are 9, 10 and 11 years old, and to have that foresight already at such a young age has allowed these girls to begin teaching me. The best part is that I get to see greatness in all of the kids, especially the opposing team.”
For Sophie, being a member of the Blue Ducks is merely an opportunity to extend her young athletic involvement a step further, which has also included intramural cheerleading, swimming lessons at the Kennett Area YMCA and the Special Olympics. Yet, for everyone else, the opportunity to coach and become teammates with a young athlete with Down Syndrome has given youth sports a new perspective.
For Nicole McGlothin, the first-year coach of the Blue Ducks, helping Sophie learn the game of basketball has allowed her to erase the original assumptions she had about coaching.
“At first, I went into coaching expecting that my players already knew the fundamentals,” said McGlothlin, who shares coaching duties with Barry Ritz. “But I have a few players, like Sophie, who need to learn those fundamentals, so it's allowed me to step back as a coach.
“Sophie puts the fun in what we do, and it's been enlightening to watch her teammates and opponents give her a chance. Everyone light ups when Sophie gets the chance to shoot.”
For Sophie, being a member of the Blue Ducks is not just an opportunity to run up and down the court. She is the team's designated in-bounds passer; leads her team in a cheer at the end of huddles (One-two-three-DUCKS!); and takes her customary shots at the beginning of each quarter. Occasionally, her enthusiasm for the game runs headlong with a reluctance to leave the court when replaced, which leaves the Blue Ducks with an unfair 6-5 player advantage.
“Sometimes she runs on the court when she's not supposed to, and the opposing team and coaches say to Nicole, 'Oh, just let her go,'” Ramagano said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 6,000 babies are born with Down Syndrome in the U.S. each year, but in recent decades, thanks to appropriate support and treatment, life expectancy for people with Down Syndrome has increased dramatically, from 25 years in 1983 to more than 60 years today. The good news doesn't stop there; avenues for athletic competition for those with Down Syndrome have increased as well, from the 4.9 million Special Olympics athletes from 172 countries to the start of the Trisome Games in 2016.
Made up entirely of Down Syndrome athletes, the Trisome Games drew nearly 1,000 contenders from 36 countries to Italy to compete in judo, rhythmic gymnastics, swimming, synchronized swimming, tennis and table tennis.
“Everything is a test drive,” said Sophie's mother, Debra. “You go once or twice to see if it's going to work or not, because what does it hurt to try? Sophie loves basketball and all sports, so my husband John and I figured we'd try this league, figuring that she'd meet a lot of friends from school and make new friends, as well. The peer monitoring she receives from being on this team is fabulous. Her teammates and opponents have been so great with her.”
At the Blue Ducks' last regular-season game on Feb. 24 at the Kennett Middle School, Sophie split her time between on-court action and taking a breather from the sidelines, where she cheered as her teammates Emma McGlothlin, Anais Ritz, Lila Klimas and Alison Geary led the Blue Ducks to a 22-17 victory. After the game, Sophie joined her teammates on the floor for an informal shoot-around.
“Sophie is a Type A personality,” Debra said of her daughter. “There's no fear on my part that I'm going to squash her incredible drive.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.