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Courtney Quirk and Arianna Quirk

Behind the Whistle: Our Love for the Game

March 16, 2023
Courtney Quirk
James Madison Athletics

This story initially appeared on Behind the Whistle, the official blog of the IWLCA, and is being republished with permission from the organization. Courtney Quirk is a freshman defender at James Madison University.

My sister Arianna has Down syndrome.

Growing up as a child, I never quite understood why others around me would stare and whisper when we were together in public. Throughout my childhood, I witnessed other children being mean and rude to her, laughing at her language, or whispering behind her back. To me, she was just like everyone else. 

At the age of 4, I had the opportunity to observe my sister playing one of her favorite sports — basketball. Among the children running up and down the court with my sister were a few special needs children who had come together to play. Despite their differences, they had one thing in common: their love for the game. It was unknown to me at the time how much impact that day would have on my life.

It amazes me to see so much passion in Arianna when it comes to sports. When I was able to attend her basketball and soccer games, I was her biggest cheerleader. Additionally, my older sister, Kait, and I would volunteer to help when we could. I would spend hours playing basketball and soccer with her. As I got older, the roles reversed. She came to every one of my high school lacrosse, soccer and basketball games and would cheer for me. She would also be the first to tell me after the game, “Great game, Court” even if it wasn’t always true. Our favorite thing to do together is still playing sports. 

Last summer, I was getting ready to come to James Madison University for my first semester. Although I didn’t know what to expect, I was excited to start a new journey. As intimidating as the 10-hour trip from my hometown in Londonderry, New Hampshire, to Harrisonburg, Virginia, was, it was worth it. I knew that joining the JMU women's lacrosse team would foster promising friendships. The culture of the team made the transition to college easy for me as well as the other members of our freshman class. We felt welcomed and valued. Being a part of this team has given me immediate friends and a family away from home. 

During fall ball, Arianna came to all our games to cheer on our team. My teammates were always so welcoming. They would always go out of their way to talk to her after every game, engage in conversations with her and make her feel a part of the team.

Arianna recently made a stop at JMU with my parents to see me. A couple of my teammates knew she was in town and had asked if she could stop by our practice to say hello and pass the lacrosse ball around with her. Arianna can be shy, so I didn’t know what to expect from her when she showed up. Despite knowing this about her, I knew I had no reason to worry because as soon as Arianna showed up, the team immediately gathered to welcome her through a tunnel of sticks they had put together for her to run through.

They all cheered and shouted her name as she ran back and forth. It was heartwarming to see two of my worlds collide in that moment. Before this day, I had never been able to get her to play lacrosse, but shortly after the girls put a stick in her hand, she learned how to pass, catch and even take shots on net. I will never forget the look on her face that day. She was smiling from ear to ear, but that wasn’t all. As I looked around at my teammates, they all had huge smiles on their faces as they interacted with her, supported her and cheered her on! The smiles are what I loved the most!

I will be forever grateful that my teammates gave Arianna an experience she will never forget. As much as that day impacted Arianna, it also had an impact on my teammates. They were able to witness firsthand the joy they brought to Arianna and the impact it had on her.  JMU Lacrosse has always been committed to community service, playing for an important cause and giving back to organizations. When deciding about community service plans for 2023, our seniors suggested that our team should partner with the Special Olympics, who have a mission to provide people with intellectual disabilities through year-round athletic opportunities. The Special Olympics strives “to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendships with their families, other Special Olympic athletes and the community.”   

There are many benefits in participating in sports including health, fitness, socialization, friendships and many more.  All of us in the lacrosse community — players, parents, coaches, fans — experience these benefits on a regular basis. However, people with disabilities face barriers to participation in sports. These barriers can include limited opportunities, cost, accessible facilities or psychological and perception factors. The Special Olympics helps individuals to overcome these barriers and experience some of the benefits of sports we may sometimes take for granted.  

My teammates enjoyed the experience of working with Arianna so much they have asked her to be an honorary captain for our game against Florida. We hope you tune in to ESPN+ to watch JMU, Florida, Arianna and Special Olympic athletes joining us on game day to experience this special moment with us.

We also want to encourage everyone to be more inclusive and welcoming in sports and help us create a generation of game changers on and off the field. Our team believes there is no better feeling or reward in life than helping someone feel welcomed and happy. Special Olympic athletes are just as passionate about sports as all of us. They share our love for the game.