In 2018, Special Olympics inaugurated a new soccer tournament modeled after the FIFA World Cup, inspiring international footballers with and without intellectual disabilities to come together and showcase the power of inclusion through sport.
This year, the Unified Cup is back. The city of Detroit will host, as athletes fly in from around the world to compete from July 31 to August 6.
The purpose of the competition is simple, but transformative. In bringing together athletes with and without intellectual disabilities, the organization hopes to create cohesive communities that leave no one behind. By taking part in activities both on and off the field, all athletes become more visible and break negative stigmas.
Katherine Ruiz and Keyla Pelen from team Guatemala are proof of the unifying power of the tournament.
The two stand as co-captains of the women’s team headed to Michigan to compete, working together to guide the team into their most important competition yet. Keyla serves as a Unified partner, a role given to athletes with no intellectual disabilities, standing alongside Katherine in unison to lead the way.
“It’s a beautiful thing, but we carry a big responsibility as well as captains. We have to carry our teammates, yes or yes. We are in charge of motivating the team, and motivating each other as co-captains. It was a hard path to get here, and we were surprised. But beyond responsibility, it is a huge honor to be able to stand as co-captain and be a representative of the team,” said Keyla.
“I hope for the best, and we’re here to give it our all and fight, because I know it won’t be easy. We are going to face incredible people, but we will fight to be our best,” added Katherine.
Katherine grew up around football, watching games on television while her dad and brother played. She had little opportunity to get involved in soccer in Guatemala, seeing no chance for a girl to play comfortably in male-dominated leagues.
But she persisted, injecting herself into the sport as the only woman before eventually dropping out.
“My family always played soccer, but for me they told me I needed to like different things because I was a girl. But once my dad eventually supported me playing soccer, that was when I began to get really involved. It was complicated, mostly because of the machismo. For them it was simple, you’re a girl that means you play bad. Or you’re a girl, straight to the bench. But I was determined, so I played.”
The two athletes shared and bonded over the experience of playing football in a male-dominated league, with Keyla adding that she had to ignore comments from adults, not children.
“Kids were never really the problem, at that age it wasn’t complicated. It was more the adults that would see a girl and make their comments. I just wanted to play, because if I listened to the comments it would be much worse. But one just has to keep going.”
The sexist experience proved too much at times for Katherine, leading her away from sports. But Special Olympics brought her back.
“Yes, here it is different. You are accepted, and no longer looked at weird because you are the only girl.”
The co-captains are now focused on participating in their very first Unified Cup, and leading Guatemala to glory. While the two know it will be no easy task, they are excited about the impact the tournament will have on the group as a whole.
“I'm also excited to meet more people, and to work together as a group. We’re bonded as a group already, so we’re coming into something new together. We all want to meet new people and enjoy this in unison,” said Katherine.
“It’s now an honor to represent Guatemala, I never thought I would be where I am so it’s a beautiful thing. There are some things one doesn’t expect, so when they arrive it’s an amazing thing.”
As Guatemala awaits kick off, the tournament is already working its magic.