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DIII Special Olympics profile: Cassandra Contigiani

by: Brynna Barnhart

When Cassandra Contigiani was a freshman in high school, she witnessed her first Special Olympics unified event at the New Hampshire high school girls soccer tournament. That chance encounter — and a childhood best friend — started her on the path to creating a unified basketball jamboree at both her high school and Thomas College in Maine, where she is a student-athlete on the soccer team.

Growing up, Contigiani and her best friend, Laura Davies, always played on the same sports teams. However, as team sports became more competitive, Laura, who has an intellectual disability, often found herself on the sidelines, serving as team manager or No. 1 fan. Contigiani said, “Being a three-sport athlete, I had taken for granted the opportunities I had been given. I wanted to give Laura and other students with intellectual disabilities the same chance.”

When it came time to decide her high school senior project, Contigiani did not hesitate. She organized the inaugural Lakes Region Special Olympics Unified Basketball Jamboree. The event, featuring five local Special Olympics unified basketball teams, garnered the support of the entire community. Contigiani obtained donations from local businesses for T-shirts, concessions, raffle items and a DJ to engage the crowd. All of the proceeds from the event were donated to Special Olympics New Hampshire.

When asked about her favorite memory from that first event, Contigiani recalled, “During one of the games, a Belmont Special Olympics athlete did a diaper shot from the 3-point line, and it was nothing but net. The whole gym went nuts, and everyone on the court went bananas because it didn’t matter what team he was on.” She added, “The gym was packed all day, smiles filled the stands, and tears of joy came from parents, coaches and even the student-athletes because they were given this opportunity.”

Since that first jamboree in 2015, Contigiani heads home from college each winter break to take part in organizing this annual event. “January 2019 was our fifth jamboree. We’ve grown from five teams to 10 and have raised over $10,000 for Special Olympics New Hampshire. The community, volunteers, my family and the athletes make this event one of the best.”

Because of their leadership, Contigiani and Laura applied for the Generation Unified — Special Olympics Social Impact Summit at the 2015 Special Olympics World Games. You can view their application video here. After being selected, they joined 120 young leaders from 30 countries in Los Angeles to discuss ways to promote full inclusion in communities around the world. The two also attended the World Games Opening Ceremonies as distinguished guests, heard from inspirational speakers such as Michael Phelps and Abby Wambach, and met members of the Kennedy-Shriver family, which founded the Special Olympics.

One might think the success of the high school event and attendance at the World Games would be enough for Contigiani. But why stop there? During her junior year at Thomas, she suffered a season-ending ACL tear early in the year. “That was an adversity I had never faced,” she said. While recovering, Contigiani mentioned the jamboree she had organized at home to one of her trainers, who encouraged her to start one at Thomas.

From there, Contigiani affiliated with Special Olympics Maine to organize the Thomas College Unified Basketball Jamboree. For the past two years, this annual event has featured eight local unified teams, over 500 fans and volunteers from the local community and the Thomas athletics department, T-shirts, concessions, raffles and more. Contigiani said, “The coolest part of this is that the Special Olympics athletes not only get a chance to play in front of their family and friends, but they are able to do so on a college campus and in that environment.”

Contigiani said her participation with Special Olympics unified sports in high school and college has impacted her “in more ways than I could have ever imagined.” She continued, “It has taught me to not take anything for granted and that there is more to the game than winning. Everyone deserves an opportunity.”

Started in 2011, the Division III/Special Olympics partnership enhances the lives of Division III student-athletes and Special Olympics athletes through a mutual learning experience; provides a platform for recognition of Special Olympics athletes and Division III student-athletes within their communities; and raises awareness of Special Olympics, its programs and services. Look for our monthly profiles highlighting the great work of Division III student-athletes, institutions and conferences in supporting and celebrating the Special Olympics partnership.