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Article Published July 3, 2019
Matt Link: Bringing Athletic Opportunities to Students of Every Ability through Unified Sports
Jenn McCulloch, Correspondent

Matt Link has worked with many children in Madison over the past two decades. He has been a middle school physical education teacher in Madison since 1995. A few years after beginning his teaching career in Madison, he also began working with the Rec Department over the summers, teaching a variety of sports camps. He has also coached at a variety of levels.

About 15 years ago, Matt added another position when he founded Madison’s chapter of Unified Sports. According to the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) website ciacsports.com, “Unified Sports is a registered program of Special Olympics that combines athletes with and without intellectual disability (or other developmental delays) on sports teams for training and competition. All Unified Sports teammates are of similar age and teams are placed in competitive divisions based on their skill abilities, and range from developmental to recreational to competitive.”

Matt had first learned about Unified Sports while doing his student teaching at Windsor High School in 1994, just two years after the CIAC rolled out the program. He saw a need for the program at Polson.

“I approached Frank Henderson, our principal, and asked if I could organize it,” says Matt. “I started with a group of middle schoolers. I had a group of students with special needs and partnered them with peer mentors. When they went to the high school, I continued with them and turned it into a high school program. We started with basketball and it worked out pretty well and it’s been growing off of that ever since.”

The program now runs at Daniel Hand High School with soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, and a combination of volleyball and track and field in the spring. Last year, Unified Sports returned to Polson with a basketball program in the winter, giving middle school students the opportunity to participate as well.

In the early years, Matt noted that he worked to recruit students to the program, but it has grown so much since then that it is now treated as any other sport at the high school. There are now more than 20 students participating in each session. Students interested in participating can register for each season through Hand’s Family ID program.

“Without the students, you can’t have a great program and we have great peers and great athletes who put a lot of effort into making the program work,” says Matt. “We’re always trying to promote it and draw more kids into it because it’s a great opportunity for students with special needs to combine with peer mentors. It gives all students an opportunity to represent their school on an athletic team while promoting sportsmanship, teamwork and inclusion.”

The students aren’t the only ones who work hard in making the Unified Sports program possible. Matt is grateful for the support of the administration and the athletic department including Superintendent of Schools Tom Scarice, Director of Special Education Dr. Liz Battaglia, Athletic Director Craig Semple, Hand Principal TJ Salutari, and Polson Principal Frank Henderson.

Several staff members also help with the program, including Kim Conner, Diane Damelio, and Maria Ferrara, who are all coaches with the program.

“There’s a lot of support from administration and they value the importance of the program and when you have the support from the top, it makes organizing that much easier,” says Matt. “I also have some helpers from the high school who really put in a lot of time as assistant coaches.”

Students in the Unified Sports program participate in more than the scheduled sports for the season. Throughout the year, they visit different places to learn other skills such as driving and putting at Klein’s Golf Range and fishing at Forester’s Pond in Killingworth. The group also participates in social activities such as a Unified Prom at Foran High School every spring, a Unified dance at Amity High School, pizza parties, and more.

“Part of the fun of Unified Sports is the bus rides to and from activities and the pizza after games and hanging out with the other teams—the athletics is fun, but the camaraderie and making new friends is a big part of the program as well,” says Matt. “It’s grass-roots sportsmanship and cooperation and it’s good to see because that can get lost sometimes in varsity-level athletics.”

Matt has been a part of athletics at many levels in addition to Unified Sports. He went to Tolland High School where his dad was a physical education teacher, the athletic director, and coached soccer and golf. Matt played both sports under his dad, who was a big influence on Matt’s career.

After graduating, Matt went on to play Division I soccer at Springfield College—his dad’s alma mater—where he captained the team as a senior.

“Being able to play soccer in college was definitely a highlight, traveling around and being a member of a team,” says Matt, who double-majored in athletic training and physical education. “By my junior year, I was leaning more toward PE.”

After student teaching in South Windsor and graduating from Springfield College, Matt had a long-term sub position at Avon High School and EO Smith High School before landing the job in Madison. Having grown up in the northern end of the state, he wasn’t familiar with the area, but he was excited for a permanent position.

Matt began moving closer to the area, leaving in Manchester, Middletown, and Wallingford before settling in Killingworth with his family. Matt and his wife Christine have two children. Clare, who will be a 7th-grader at Haddam-Killingworth Middle School plays soccer and figure skates, and Sean, who is entering 5th grade, enjoys horseback riding and swimming.

Over his years in the Madison school district, Matt has coached varsity volleyball, middle school soccer, freshman soccer, and varsity soccer. Now, in addition to Unified Sports, he coaches his daughter’s soccer team in Killingworth.

“Out of all of my coaching, Unified Sports is the most rewarding in terms of seeing students’ sportsmanship, determination, teamwork, and cooperation,” says Matt, who enjoys being outside, mountain biking, hunting, and fishing. “While I’m the organizer of Unified Sports, in order to run a program as big as ours, I have a lot of helpers and it wouldn’t be possible without them.”