Charlie Austin, 14, sits with a Brunswick High School Unified Sports athlete during a game. The team, part of the Special Olympics, places students with and without intellectual disabilities on the same sports teams to help break down barriers. Austin was recognized this year for his work volunteering with the team. Photo courtesy of Meg Austin

BRUNSWICK — Charlie Austin has always loved sports. Whether on the court, in the dugout or at the first tee, the 14-year-old Brunswick Junior High School student has always felt at home in the athletic world. 

But two years ago, when Austin was diagnosed with pediatric cardiomyopathy, a rare heart condition that makes it hard for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body, he was told he could no longer play competitive sports. 

The diagnosis was devastating, Austin said, but while he may not be able to compete, he knew he still wanted to be involved in athletics. Switching to theater or music or any of the other local programs would not fuel his passion in quite the same way as sports always had.

Charlie Austin Photo courtesy of Meg Austin

That’s when he found Unified Sports. 

Unified Sports is a program through the Special Olympics that puts people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team, inspired by the idea that “training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding,” according to the organization. Roughly 1.4 million people worldwide take part in Unified Sports 

Austin assistant coaches, manages, keeps the books and recruits fans for the Brunswick Dragons Unified Basketball team at Brunswick High School. It is a way for him to channel his love of sports into something meaningful. 


“A lot of people don’t know what Unified is,” he said. “The attention is all on varsity basketball, (but) you’ll catch the Unified spirit.” 

Austin loves basketball, and he has always been good at it. Coaching comes pretty naturally to him, and he expected working with the Unified team to be a fun learning experience. What he didn’t expect was to “fall in love” with it, he said. 

He goes to the practices, the games, the team dinners. He creates photo books, like sports yearbooks for the players at the end of the season. He and a friend he recruited went down to the Maine Special Olympics headquarters in Portland to bag over 500 gift bags full of scarves, hats and mittens for athletes competing at the 2019 Special Olympics Winter Games at Sugarloaf Mountain. 

Austin is one of two Maine students and the only middle school student to receive The Prudential Spirit of Community Award, a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism. News of the award came the same day Austin also learned he was going to a Bruin’s hockey game through an event with Boston Children’s Hospital, and the day quickly became one of the happiest of his life, he said.

Each state has one middle and one high school student representative, chosen from a pool of applicants from schools and organizations across the state based on personal initiative, effort, impact and personal growth, according to the press release.

As a Maine representative, Austin received $1,000, an engraved silver medallion and an all-expense-paid trip to Washington D.C. in May, where he will join the other award-winners from across the country and share the work he has done. Ten students will be selected as America’s top youth volunteers and awarded $5,000 scholarships and $5,000 grants from Prudential for nonprofit charitable organizations of their choice.


Working with the team has “majorly” impacted his view of sports, he said, and it’s rewarding to help the players realize the Special Olympics motto: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

Wednesday, the Dragons will play the Freeport High School Unified team at 3:30 p.m. in the Brunswick High School gym. It’s the team’s big home game of the season, Austin said, and the band and cheerleaders will be there to give them the “varsity experience.”

He hopes people will come to support the team. “We could always use more fans,” he said, and while it’s a big game, the goal is the same as for every other game, he said: “to have fun.”

Teammates on the Brunswick High School Unified basketball team high five after a recent game. Junior high school student Charlie Austin has volunteered with the team for two seasons.

“It’s the best of sports,” his mom, Meg Austin said. “People with different abilities being the best they can be and having fun. It’s everything sports should be, but sometimes isn’t.” 

“I’m incredibly proud of him,” she added. “The day he was diagnosed was one of the most difficult days of our lives, and he has turned it into something really positive. Two years ago I never would have imagined we’d be where we are.”

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