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Tuesday, February 18, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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U-Hi senior Dayton Larson earns bronze medal at Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi

Dayton Larson, left, of University High School in Spokane Valley and his Team USA teammate, Said Dominguez of Las Vegas, are pictured during the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi on March 14-21, 2019. (Courtesy of Dayton Larson / Courtesy of Dayton Larson/ For The Spokesman-Review)
Dayton Larson, left, of University High School in Spokane Valley and his Team USA teammate, Said Dominguez of Las Vegas, are pictured during the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi on March 14-21, 2019. (Courtesy of Dayton Larson / Courtesy of Dayton Larson/ For The Spokesman-Review)

The moment was captured on video and Dayton Larson watches it every day.

And why not?

The University senior was picked to play for the Team USA soccer team at the Special Olympics World Games 2019 in Abu Dhabi on March 14-21.

More than that, his goal sparked his team in the third-place match to the win that earned them bronze medals.

“That was easily the greatest moment of my life,” Larson said. “My coach (Rich Schreiner, the associate women’s head coach at Seattle University) told me that it was my goal that sparked the team to a win in that match.

“I watch the video of it every day, and every day it makes me feel the same way – really happy and very proud.”

Larson is part of the Unified Sports program that places players with and without intellectual disabilities on the same competitive team with the goal of enabling athletes to learn new sports, refine athletic skills and form new friendships.

“I was invited to try out for Team USA,” he said. “When I got there I didn’t know anyone else on the team. Now they’re my best friends.”

Larson plays football and wrestles for University and plays Unified Soccer and Basketball in the Special Olympics.

“Dayton and his older brother, Dakota, are just great athletes,” U-Hi girls soccer coach Kara Sharpe said. “When he was a sophomore we invited them to join our Unified Sports program. They were both playing football at the time. Dayton hadn’t played soccer at all at that point, but he picked it up so fast and now, two years later, he’s playing for Team USA.”

“When I began playing Unified Sports at U-Hi I was a sophomore and, really, the only reason I did it was because my brother was doing it,” Larson said. “But I figured, ‘What the heck.’ I love playing sports and any chance I can get to show off or something like that, I’ll do it.

“But I never pictured doing just one sport and here I am, a bronze medalist. It’s crazy where life takes you.”

Once Larson made the national team, he began practicing with the unit once a month beginning in October.

“I play center forward for the team,” Larson said. “I’m the one who is supposed to score all the goals.

“One of the first things I discovered when I began playing with the team was that there were players on my team who were better than me. So I decided that I needed to work that much harder to make myself a better player, too. I made sure that I went hard in every game and gave it 110 percent.”

It took more than a little adaptation to play with the team.

“When I played in the USA Games in Seattle we were playing 5-on-5 soccer,” Larson said. “With Team USA we were playing 11-on-11 and I had to learn about how to be onside. I had never played with that rule, and I think I’m still a little fuzzy on that one.”

The trip to the United Arab Emirates was a new experience.

“It was a five-hour flight from Seattle to New York,” he said. “Then we had a direct flight from New York to Abu Dhabi, and that was 12 hours. It was crazy. I have never been so uncomfortable in my whole life.”

When the team left, Larson left behind a snowy hometown still dealing with polar temperatures. What he found in the UAE was warm, sunny conditions that actually required sunscreen.

“It felt so nice there,” he laughed. “It was really indescribable. I actually got sunburned a lot.”

The Games were treated with a great deal of pomp and circumstance, with more than 7,000 athletes taking part in the opening ceremony.

“Honestly, the opening ceremonies with all of Team USA walking into this big stadium and having 30,000 people screaming ‘USA, USA’ at us – being right there and taking that all in, was an incredible experience,” Larson said. “The feeling of representing my country is hard to describe. It just felt so nice.”

Team USA competed in a soccer bracket that featured 119 teams, but Larson said it had the loudest, most enthusiastic crowd of any team in the field.

“There were over 300 participants from the United States and a lot of them came to watch us play,” he said. “There were other families there, and they were streaming our games back home. There were kids from a boarding school over there that came out to support us. We had the loudest crowds, no doubt.”

Larson said he loved the whole experience. Team USA provided its athletes with plenty of team pins that they were encouraged to trade with athletes from other countries – a tradition long practiced at World Games at all levels.

“I think the one I like the best is the China pin,” he said. “It was a little difficult talking to them, but we made at least one of them laugh and I liked that.

“Our group was the fun group. We were always playing games on the bus, and we had a really good time.”

Back home Larson has enjoyed telling classmates about his experience. There was little coverage of the team, so he’s had to bring everyone up to speed on how Team USA fared, and of course he shows them the video of his goal.

“When we get back from spring vacation, Dayton is going to have a presentation that he will make to all of his classes,” Sharpe said. “And he was called out at our final assembly before the break, and he got a nice ovation from his fellow students.”

Larson said he loved the experience, and he plans to seek out other opportunities to represent the country through Special Olympics.

“I miss being there,” he said. “It was an amazing time. We were treated like royalty while we were there. And now I’m back home having to do dishes again.

“I would love to go back.”

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