When Michael Paglicci, BS’16, stood at the podium to assist in announcing the return of the Special Olympics New York's Western Region Basketball Tournament after the COVID pandemic forced its postponement for two years, it was a full-circle moment.

Just six years earlier, he had been one of the coaches working with the athletes. Today, as associate director of program for the Special Olympics New York’s Western Region, he was one of those organizing the event.

As a student in Niagara University’s College of Hospitality, Sport and Tourism Management, Paglicci took advantage of many of the special opportunities available to him, including volunteering to work at the Super Bowl and spending two weeks in Germany studying foreign sports. He noted that both those experiences helped him see that the sports industry was bigger than the athletes and the front office staff; each game was an event, and he “fell in love with the event side.”

Paglicci had also heard about Niagara’s Special Olympics coaching and games management course, a class offered by the colleges of education and hospitality in partnership with the Special Olympics. Since 2006, NU has offered the class, which culminates in the annual basketball tournament.

“At that time, everyone was trying to get into the class because they knew how awesome the experience was, and I was lucky enough to get into it,” he said.

As a volunteer coach, Paglicci quickly learned that the class was solely for the athletes, and that the relationships he developed with them over the weeks leading up to the tournament would be crucial to providing them with an exceptional experience. He also realized that the class would be a life-changing one for him, as well.   

“I think the experience definitely reshaped my understanding of individuals with intellectual disabilities, who they are and the place in society that they can have,” he said. “That class really helped me shape my understanding that we’re all on this even playing field. Just because they have a disability doesn’t mean they can’t do the things that I do every day—they just might do it at a different pace, or might do it in a different way, but it’s still the same thing.”

Now, in his role with the Special Olympics, he is hoping to create additional opportunities, both at Niagara University and throughout Western New York, so that others can have the same impactful experience he did. He is currently working with local school districts to establish unified sports teams, which join athletes both with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team, and with area colleges to start additional Special Olympics clubs and organizations, with the goal of promoting inclusion, acceptance, friendship, respect, and understanding.

“There are schools across the country where there are real friendships that are made and those carry on into the real world,” he said. “I want to make those connections.

“You can make a difference doing sport in ways you never thought possible, and it didn’t click until I had someone talk to me about working for Special Olympics,” he continued. “All of a sudden, it made sense, what I did, what my goals, passions, and aspirations are for my professional life. The fact that this opportunity was here was amazing. It feels good to be back here and to be doing what I do for a school like Niagara. My hope is that we can really grow this program in the area and make it more than what it is even today.”

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