ORLANDO— A central Florida soccer team has been selected to represent the state of Florida this year at the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games.
Those games will be played in June in New Jersey.
Training and recent performance earned the team the trip to the games.
Coach Silvia Haas said the Special Olympians have come a long way in the 10 years since she began coaching them.
"I couldn't even get them to go out here and play. Normally they would go and sit down. They didn't want to have any kind of interaction with each other," she said of the players with autism.
She started teaching them the basics of soccer and team sports and in the process began to break down language barriers and difficulties with social interaction.
"What we saw was their potential. We didn't look at their disability, we looked at their ability," Haas said.
Take 21-year-old Josue Hernandez for example.
"When he first started with me nine years ago he was very hesitant, wasn't as confident as he is now, wouldn't make a lot of eye contact," Haas recalled.
Now Hernandez is the goalie and the team captain.
"At first it seems very exciting but nervous at the same time because you have a leadership -- you have this big weight in your hands," Hernandez said.
The load is lightened by what the Special Olympics calls "unified players" -- typical athletes with the not-so-typical role of playing alongside the Special Olympians.
Unified player Michael Farrella, a 21-year-old who plays club soccer at the University of Central Florida, described his teammates' progress as "ridiculous."
"I can't really explain it to you. They didn't know how to play soccer at all and now they're shooting balls like the ones you just saw and it's remarkable," Farrel said just after a sharp pass flew by.
Haas attributed the gains of the players with autism to their own hard work, but also to playing alongside Farrell and the others.
"Having them compete with their peers they became better athletes," Haas said.
When the team takes the field in the national competition, "We're going to give them a real show," Hernandez promised.
National competition is five-on-five with a mix of Special Olympic athletes and unified players.
The Special Olympics also has unified team sports like tennis and volleyball.