Spotlight on Project UNIFY: Ilima Kane

Coaching for achievement beyond the field of competition

ima Kane has been coaching Special Olympics athletes for more than 10 years, including three years with the Colorado Rapids Special Olympics Unified All-Star team.

“Watching our players develop through Unified Sports and watching new friendships form has been great,” says Kane. “It’s just so easy to get to know people when you’re on the field of play and you’re equals. It’s been great to see Azur (Ewari), a 15-year-old who is very quiet, young and reserved, transform into a leader. It’s inspiring to see our athletes realize that they are not so different after all – and that they have so much to offer both on and off the field. Unified sports help give them the confidence to showcase equality.”

This season, Kane was the head coach of a team comprised of 30 Special Olympics Colorado athletes and Unified Partners so she is quite capable of sharing her perspective on how powerful playing Unified can be.

“I think that’s the beauty of sport,” explains Kane. “At first they all bond on the field and once that happens, any barriers, communication or other differences are not important. My biggest advice to new Unified Partners is to have fun with it and just make sure your fellow players are having fun while also improving as athletes. I think when you approach it that way it’s easy to knock down all of the barriers.”

Aspen DeField has coached with Kane for years and one thing that DeField appreciates most about Kane is her reasons for coaching. “One thing that I love about Ilima is she coaches beyond sport specific skills,” explains DeField. “She teaches partners how to be good partners. It’s not just how to be a better soccer player but how to set athletes up for success in all aspects of their lives. She teaches them to be the best version of themselves.”

While Kane has been involved for more than a decade, there are still unexpected aspects of coaching Special Olympics Colorado athletes and their unified partners. “I don’t think I realized how many life lessons we would be teaching on the road,” says Kane. “I have conversations on the road that I wouldn’t normally have because the support systems aren’t necessarily there in other areas of their lives. It’s been a rewarding challenge to be supportive and learn to help them—not just to help an individual cope, but helping the teammates learn to help cope with things together and develop trust with each other.”

DeField is quick to praise Kane’s priorities as a coach and the impact she has had on everyone she works with in Unified Sports. “I’ve never heard Ilima emphasize winning. She emphasizes having fun and leaving the game knowing they played their best. She is easy to be around, she embodies what she teaches the athletes – it’s not a, ‘do as I say type of thing.’ She actually lives up to all of the things she expects from them. She has great sportsmanship, is a great coach and an even better person – she always has an incredibly attitude.”

When asked what she would share with anyone interested in being involved with Unified Sports, Kane didn’t hesitate saying, “I think the most valuable thing about Unified Sports is the unique part of the experience and reinforcing sportsmanship. I would really encourage anyone considering getting involved with Special Olympics Unified Sports to look at their motives because while it’s very competitive, the primary goal isn’t winning. We want the athletes to feel safe and be in a position where they want to learn. We want everyone to feel like they can just be themselves – to experience what it’s like to be a true teammate.”

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