REPUBLIC — Riley Hesterly and Conner Priebe are classmates, teammates and friends.
They are also working together to break down stereotypes and encourage children and teenagers with and without intellectual disabilities to get to know each through shared sports training and competition.
The Republic High School juniors, who met as sixth-graders, are members of the same Special Olympics basketball team.
Riley, who has Down syndrome, is a Special Olympics athlete and Conner is a “unified” or inclusive partner of the team.
“I help out with the athletes and play with them on and off the court and during practice. Riley is one of the athletes,” said Conner, 16. “Unified members kind of help run things. We do not have the title of coach but we are like the middleman between coaches and the athletes.”
Riley and Conner, who practice weekly, have spent so much time together that they help answer each other’s questions during a News-Leader interview.
They are serious about playing sports but they joke about almost everything else, even occasionally getting on each other’s nerves, especially when they were together for an entire week.
“We were tired. We butted heads a couple times,” Conner said. Riley responded: “He tries to boss me around sometimes but he’s still amazing.”
They believe their relationship, which has endured, can be an example for others. Missouri state officials agree.
Riley and Conner were recently selected to represent Team Missouri as inclusive youth leaders at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando, Florida. The trip is June 5-12.
“We’re going as the leadership to go and learn things that we can bring back to better our program,” Conner said. Riley added: “To make it better.”
Missouri selects two athletes to represent the state and join athletes and unified partners from other states to learn how to create a more inclusive environment. Riley and Conner made a one-year commitment to help lead Team Missouri.
“Riley and Conner both have done just an absolute great job of not only representing the high school but also representing Special Olympics throughout the state,” said Principal John Thompson.
“This opportunity for them to lead and represent Republic High School but also the great state of Missouri in the Special Olympics is a huge accomplishment for two students and we are so proud of them.”
According to Special Olympics, 1.4 million people in the world take part in unified sports. The Republic-based team has been unified, or inclusive, for a long time.
“I think I’m the only unified partner now. I have a buddy I’m bringing in this year,” Conner said. “We want to get it out to the school and our students to get them more involved so more people know about it.”
Riley, 17, has been a Special Olympics athlete for as long has he can recall. He loves to play, make friends, and sing.
He is also part of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, JROTC, at the high school.
Asked about the long friendship with Conner, Riley said: “I just like him because he’s an amazing, incredible person I know. We like the same thing. He is the best person and I always get to see that.”
He added: “Sometimes, he makes me laugh and definitely he can be whatever he wants to be.”
Conner plays football and golf and he is part of Key Club. Asked about the friendship, he said they make each other laugh.
“He’s always dancing or having fun. He loves to sing,” he said. “No matter what you are doing, he’s dancing. Sometimes he’ll bounce off the walls and always has a smile on his face. He loves to help. He’s very caring.”
Conner said they work on stretching, learning fundamentals of the game and playing. “It has brought us a lot closer, just being on the court together.”
He said he will demonstrate skills to help Riley, and the other team members, play better. Riley said Conner is fun at practice but added “Honestly, I am way better than him.”
Conner said his father, Springfield Police Officer Mark Priebe, introduced him to Special Olympics early in life. His father, who was seriously injured on the job in June 2020, has long been a supporter of the program.
Conner said the relationship with Riley and other athletes has “truly changed me.”
“They love everybody,” he said. “They are just a great group of people to work with and play with and hang out with.”
Conner said if he sees an athlete having a bad day, he’ll pull the person aside and encourage them. They, in turn, cheer for him and each other.
Together, Riley and Conner will try to recruit more classmates to be part of the Special Olympics’ unified program. There are more than 30 athletes involved right now.
In addition, Conner plans to take what he learns and turn it into his senior project. He hopes more people will sign up as unified partners.
“It means a lot to me. It is something I look forward to every time we have an event, just getting to see the kids and make more memories and relationships, growing with them,” Conner said.
He encouraged anyone interested in participating to reach out or come watch a practice.
“It’s something you have to kind of be there to see. It’s a different atmosphere. You are on the same level,” he said. “It changes your heart and your life. It’s definitely something I wish more people would be exposed to and see.”
About the series
The “Future of the Ozarks” series, spotlighting extraordinary students in the Ozarks, will publish on Mondays.
The series will feature students with an incredible talent, accomplishment, or passion for helping others. To nominate an individual, email Claudette Riley, education reporter, with details and contact information at email@example.com.