Students from a New York City prep school step out of their comfort zone

KILLINGTON, Vt. -- They stood quietly in the middle of the raucous ballroom, the loud music and clamor of dancing reducing them to an awkwardness not unfamiliar to teenage boys through history.

Except these were not the shy, awkward types. Top students and hockey players from one of the premiere private schools in New York City, the eight boys were simply unaccustomed to being in the minority. But for a few days in December at the U.S. Special Olympics training camp, with a dance party as the big social event of the gathering, they were the ones who were different.

"They weren't used to the environment until we told them it's OK to be different, it's OK to have fun," said Daniel Davila, 20, a Special Olympics athlete on the unified floor hockey team that is representing the U.S. at the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Graz, Austria.

Dedicated to "promoting social inclusion through shared training and competition on the athletic field," Special Olympics unified teams are made up of intellectually disabled athletes and their partners (non-disabled teammates) of similar skill levels.

Although there are 1.2 million unified sports participants worldwide, according to Special Olympics, and 13 of the 25 sports in the 2015 World Summer Games had unified teams, the mostly individual sports that constitute the Winter Games reduce those numbers greatly. Floor hockey is the only sport in which the U.S. is fielding a unified team in Austria.

For the 16 players on the squad -- the boys from the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx and their eight Special Olympics teammates who attend or recently attended P.S. M721, also known as the Manhattan Occupational Training Center -- that distinction makes them feel more special.

"What I like about unified is you get to see people from different cultures and different standpoints come together as a team," Davila said. "Everybody should give it a chance. It's good to come out of your comfort zone."

Some from Fieldston, a highly selective K-12 school with annual tuition of upward of $43,000, refer to that comfort zone by another name.

"Where we come from, we're very much in a bubble," said Jack Zalta, 17, a junior at Fieldston and unified partner. "We recognized that a very long time ago. We just didn't have a chance to get out of it."

To be fair, Fieldston has a diverse population of students, some of whom attend the school on scholarship. The school's cornerstone is a dedication to community service, which many of the floor hockey players have been doing for years.

But somehow, they all agree, this experience has been different from the rest.

"I don't want them living in a bubble," said Liz Fernandez, director of progressive and multicultural education at Fieldston and assistant coach of the U.S. floor hockey team. "Part of the experience they've had, and what they've articulated, is that they're not that different [from their Special Olympic teammates], that there's a lot of commonality in and amongst them that they seemingly would never have uncovered, except now they have."

With the team's first practice came the discovery of a shared love of sports and competition. With the first bus ride, there were favorite songs, memes and YouTube videos. The longer they have known one another, the more the players have developed their own brand of teasing and humor through an active Facebook group and a trust that comes only from real friendship.

"There's nothing they don't bond over," said Janet Rivers, grandmother and legal guardian of Special Olympics athlete Daquan Rivers, at 21 the oldest member of the team. "I'm surprised but so happy they can bond with each other over personal things -- girlfriends, parents. Daquan knows I'm private, but I told him, 'They trust you like that, and if you need to talk about [anything], talk to them.'"

In unified floor hockey, there are six players, including the goalie -- at least three of them being Special Olympics athletes -- per team on the court at a time. The goalie wields a regulation ice hockey stick, but defensemen and forwards propel the doughnut-shaped, felt puck around with straight sticks that resemble broom handles.

Among the first hurdles for the team was blending the unified partners from Fieldston, who had never played the Special Olympics version of floor hockey, with Special Olympics athletes who had played the sport together for years.

At their first practice, U.S. floor hockey coach Joe Stewart, a teacher and coach at P.S. M721, threw the two groups against each other in a scrimmage, and one thing was immediately apparent.

"They demolished us," unified partner Max Lepaw, 16, said. "We thought we were going to have to ease off, but after the first faceoff, we were like, 'Oh, no.'"

There was also shyness, Stewart recalled, when Fieldston students went around and introduced themselves that day.

"I was the one who broke the ice of awkwardness," Davila said. "At the beginning, we used to sit separate from each other. But I was the one who was like, 'You know what? I'm going to change that.' Since we're Team USA, I'm going to sit with them, and I told my teammates, 'We need to bond with them.' I bonded with Jack because we liked the same music, and after that, we all started to talk about basketball."

The relative anonymity of the sport, in which players wear helmets with cages over their faces, lends itself "perfectly" to unified sports, Stewart said. But in the hallways of Fieldston, there were common misconceptions about what the hockey boys were doing.

"Where we come from, we're very much in a bubble. We recognized that a very long time ago. We just didn't have a chance to get out of it."

Jack Zalta, 17, a Fieldston junior and partner on the U.S. unified floor hockey team

"It was difficult for me to explain," Lepaw said. "Not that other kids were closed-minded, but as soon as they hear 'Special Olympics,' they think we're volunteering and not actually playing."

"They don't get it," said Zalta, with brother Max one of three sets of twins on the U.S. team. "They say, 'Oh, you're coaching them in Austria. You're helping them. Don't you just take it easy?' And we're like, 'No, they'd bust our asses and break our ankles.'"

Any potential for patronizing with this group is knocked down as swiftly as the delusion that it somehow would not be detected.

"That would not go over," Daquan Rivers said bluntly. "We would correct them pretty quick. But they wouldn't."

During the training camp in Vermont, the teammates jumped into the heated outdoor pool in subzero temperatures and laughed over their mutual dislike of some of the dance music. But it was their bus rides and team lunches that bonded them even further.

"We had some really, really fun conversations," Max Zalta said. "We talked a lot about the sports world, which has been a talking point in a lot of our conversations. But more than that was not just listening to what they had to say but what we had to learn from them. The most genuine thing was the level of understanding we all had about how we're all so much alike."

For the parents of both the Special Olympics athletes and their unified partners, the experience is every bit as awe-inspiring -- perhaps even more from afar.

"When I explain to people what he's doing, I can't just say my son is participating in Special Olympics," Garret Lepaw, father of Max, said. "You can't just say it in a vacuum. It's such an important story to tell, but it almost doesn't do it justice to tell it."

One look at the list of college destinations for the 151 students of the Fieldston Class of 2016 is a sweeping glimpse of virtually every top university in the U.S., including all eight Ivy League schools. But any suggestion that this experience would look good on a college application is met with a curt response.

"A lot of people say, 'Cool, this will look so great on your résumé,'" Max Lepaw said. "That's not the reason I'm doing it. That's not at all what it's about. If I really cared about something looking cool on my résumé, I'd volunteer for a one-day event at Fieldston. This is really because it's such a great opportunity and a great experience for myself and for my teammates to have and be a part of."

What parents, coaches and athletes are hoping, they say, is that the bond the players are forming now will not last simply until the World Games are over but endure like all great friendships. Also, they hope that, as with many friendships, those relationships will have various advantages.

"These [players from Fieldston] are the future business leaders of New York City," Stewart said, "and I don't believe they'd think twice about hiring someone with a disability or someone whose name they don't know on their résumé."

James Rivers said that although his grandson Daquan has always had plenty of friends, this experience has increased his confidence, making him "more assertive in terms of reaching his goals and wanting to work toward things he wants to achieve."

"Daquan is in a good place right now where these things are really possible, not just because he played in the Olympics but because of these long-lasting friendships," he said. "Whether it's someone connecting him with a job or not, I think it's a good stepping-stone to the future."

"When Michael was small, at one point he couldn't walk and couldn't talk, and the doctor was telling us that he wouldn't walk or talk. He was a challenge, but he beat that challenge and showed all of us what he could do, and he's doing that now."

Alicia Pica Bauza, mother of U.S. Special Olympics floor hockey player Michael Ayers

Over the past several months, team members have gained experience in public speaking and have learned about fundraising and nonprofit organizations.

For Alicia Pica Bauza, mother of U.S. athlete Michael Ayers, the benefits of Special Olympics have been both incremental and mind-blowing at the same time.

"When Michael was small, at one point he couldn't walk and couldn't talk, and the doctor was telling us that he wouldn't walk or talk," she said. "He was a challenge, but he beat that challenge and showed all of us what he could do, and he's doing that now."

On the positive impact of the program, all the parents can agree.

"From a mother's perspective and seeing what this has done for my son, this is truly a life-changing experience," said Pamela Newman, Max Lepaw's mother. "This is more than fundraising. They're active participants in changing people's views. I just hope at such a young age that Max understands the magnitude of what this can do for him and for others."

If it takes a few years for that to settle in, one thing is already clear.

"My teammates are the most important thing to me right now," said Daquan Rivers, who is studying criminal justice at Borough of Manhattan Community College. "We help each other out. We're family."

For Max LePaw, who views adulthood as remotely as most teenagers, that is not likely to change.

"We're going to be taking the stage at the World Games together, so I definitely think the team of 16 of us will maintain a very close relationship," he said. "I definitely see us later in life saying, 'Hey, how's it going? Want to meet up?' I don't see it like now that I've done that, then I'm going to just donate to Special Olympics. I see these guys as teammates, as equals, as close friends.

"There is no us and them. It's just us."