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While Robert and Leanne Kerley's competitiveness can clash, they both know its for the best of each other.

"Sometimes it's good, sometimes not but we just have high expectations for each other," Leanne said. "We might be harder on each other at some times but it's all love at the end of the day, of course."

The Kerleys get to use that competitiveness as part of Team Indiana's unified softball team. Robert, 41, is a pitcher and team captain and has been a part of the Special Olympics since he was 15.

He's played slow-pitch softball in the Valparaiso Parks League for 20-plus years, while wife Leanne had played softball since she was seven growing up in Chesterton.

At the Special Olympics USA Games from July 1 to 7, the Kerleys and the rest of Team Indiana that was made of up of coaches, players, and unified partners from Porter County got the chance to represent the state and earned a bronze medal in Seattle.

Team Indiana defeated Texas 9-8, Florida 11-10 and Arkansas 10-6 before falling to Florida in the semifinals.

"It was pretty exciting, because I got to do this all with most of my best friends and with my wife," Robert said. "We were kind of hoping for a little bit more than a bronze but after thinking about it, you realize you got to represent Indiana and we still came home with a medal and you gotta be happy about that. Some days you don't think you played as hard as you can but once you look back you really see what you did was really cool.

"You also get to see friends you don't get to see all year and there's that competition that me and my wife really like. We're pretty competitive with the other three couples."

The couple also pointed out the opportunity that the Special Olympics has allowed them to do things like travel to places like New Jersey and Seattle.

"I've never been west and I got to see how gorgeous Seattle is," Robert said. "We got to be tourists and see the Space Needle and go down to the fish market. To have my wife, nephew and six of my best friends to share it all with made it one of the best times of my life."

"We get to meet and compete with people from all over the place at state and national competitions," Leanne added. "This has really given me the the opportunity to do some traveling when I probably might not have had that opportunity."

Leanne is a unified partner with the Special Olympics, meaning she is volunteer whose primary goal is to equalize the ability of the Special Olympics athletes with their partners and to promote inclusion through practices and competition.

"These athletes are really good athletes that might not have had the opportunity to play school sports because of their intellectual disabilities," she said. "This gives them the chance to shine and show their true sports ability. What I really like about unified is that people don't really understand how competitive it is, I was actually quite surprised about that."

Kerley is in her 14th year as a unified partner, having been asked years ago by someone if she'd be interested. In middle and high school, she was a peer tutor, so she had dealt with special needs individuals before.

"Working with special needs students really helped me learn patience and kindness," she said. "I've honestly learned more from people with special needs than anyone else."

One of Team Indiana's coaches, Jeff McNabb, is a 32-year-old from Valparaiso and a River Forest graduate. Having coached Little League in Valpo with a longtime unified partner in Jim MacKenzie, it was mentioned about doing unified flag football and he's been a part of Special Olympics for the last four years now.

"It was a brand new experience for me," McNabb said. "With this Porter County group though, they were so welcoming and immediately make you feel like family. I was amazed how close of a family it really is. Some of my best friends have come from the Special Olympics."

McNabb called the experience in Seattle, "an amazing thing to take in."

"These special needs athletes, they're the best," he said. "They really wanna make me do better in not just sports, but in my everyday life. It kind of stinks when I have to leave them and go back to my every-day life."

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Sports Reporter

CJ grew up shadowing his father, Jim, at various prep events and now follows in his footsteps as a sports reporter at The Times. A Purdue University graduate, his allegiances lie with the Boilermakers, Cincinnati Bengals and Cincinnati Reds.