Real Salt Lake Special Olympics Unified Head Coach Jenna Holland has worked with people with disabilities for over 25 years, and she has spent the last seven years as the head coach of RSL Unified, and as her time continues her love for the work only continues to grow.
“This is such a great program,” Holland remarked on the uniqueness of RSL Unified.
Holland first moved to Utah in 1998, where she began working with people with disabilities in her job with Futures Through Choices. Futures Through Choices is a non-profit organization that works to enhance the lives of those with developmental disabilities. Her background working with adults with disabilities and her background in sports inspired Holland to get involved with a Special Olympics program.
Holland, and her sister Madi, started a Special Olympics team called Northern Thunder in 2001 where they, under the umbrella of Special Olympics Utah, held training sessions and matches in multiple sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. The Northern Thunder’s athletes participated in swimming, basketball, bocce ball, bowling and soccer, among other sports.
The biggest thing Holland emphasizes about the Special Olympics program is that it's not just soccer; there are plenty of sports and choices for anyone who wants to be involved.
"If there's anybody that has a child that wants to be a part of the Special Olympics, just get a hold of someone," she said. "There's a sport for everybody."
In 2016 when RSL decided to start a Unified team, Holland was asked to coach. Initially, she was hesitant, unsure about being a head soccer coach, but she chose to do it and never looked back.
"Ever since [deciding to be head coach], I've been like 'what? I really had to think about coaching the RSL Unified team?”' Holland said. "Who does that?"
After joining as head coach, Holland asked her sister Alisa Graham to be her assistant coach. Eventually, Graham and Holland expanded their staff. The team now has goalkeeper coach Bryan Karren and has added three assistant coaches including former RSL player Luis Silva, Sean Johnson and Rylee Johnson.
Since joining RSL Unified, Holland has shifted her focus entirely to soccer, something she has found great joy in. Holland's favorite part of RSL Unified is watching her team grow through every training session, game and travel day.
“That first day of practice is watching them get to know each other," Holland said. “After that, seeing them bond, interact and watching them grow from there has been just awesome."
For Holland, she feels that the most important thing she can facilitate is an environment where everyone knows they are a part of something. From tryouts and her first training session, she likes to see the level of play and come up with drills that accommodate everybody so that they know they're a part of the team. Holland knows her background working with adults with disabilities has helped her create an environment where her team can thrive.
"I've coached for many years, I played college soccer," Holland said. "My job also helps, working with adults with disabilities. Getting to know everybody's personalities and quirks and do's and don'ts, what to say and what not to say. That has really helped me."
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Unified soccer has not been able to play games due to league protocols. This is the first time since the pandemic that another team has been able to visit Rio Tinto Stadium, and Holland is excited about her team getting to compete again.
"The fans have grown in our stands when we play," Holland said. "Through word of mouth, social media and coming out to support. Getting the word out about what goes on and how this kind of program impacts players with or without disabilities. How much it helps them grow and the friendships that they make is so important."
The RSL Unified team will play two matches, one on the road and one at home at Rio Tinto Stadium. The team's home match against Colorado Rapids Unified will take place after RSL’s Rocky Mountain Cup match on July 9. The first team match will kick off at 8:00 p.m. with the Special Olympics game immediately afterward.
"They need to know that the community loves them," Holland said. "They deserve every minute being out there. How hard they've trained and what they've accomplished is really important."