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How this Special Olympics athlete drew the EPL’s attention



Since March, Niall Guite has used up a box of 150 felt-tip pens. Twice. He’s also burned through a 36-pack of colored pencils — twice — and purchased enough poster board to wallpaper his bedroom. Niall and his mother, Michelle Guite, have learned that it’s best to buy in bulk.

When the world shut down and sporting events were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, nonprofit organizations, including Special Olympics — a global sports organization for athletes with intellectual disabilities — started looking for innovative ways to raise money. In the U.K., organizers of the London Marathon, which was postponed in April and is one of the world’s largest single-day fundraising events, started the 2.6 Challenge to raise money for British charities. That’s when Niall, a Special Olympics gold medalist himself, had an idea.

The devout Sheffield Wednesday fan would draw 26 renderings of U.K. football stadiums — he has visited 67 of them, after all — from his now-signature aerial perspective. He would then sell them through the JustGiving site in hopes of raising £260, allowing people to choose the donation amount — as long as it was a variation of 2.6, a play on the 2.6 Challenge. Twenty-six pounds, £126 and so on. The money would go to Special Olympics Great Britain, where he competes and sits on its Athlete Leadership Team, a committee that helps shape how the organization serves its athletes. He reached his goal within one month — and the orders continued to come in. So too did the accolades.

Manchester City midfielder Rodri gave a nod to Niall’s rendition of Etihad Stadium in a video, and the team invited him to a match, sent him a signed jersey and plans to hang Niall’s drawing in the club’s boardroom. Bath City, a semipro football club in England’s sixth tier, joked on Twitter that they had never seen their stadium so full. Renowned British artist Grayson Perry tweeted that he loved Niall’s drawings. The local television station came out to interview him. His family muses that Niall has gotten more renown than his father, Mitch, who majored in art. Humor is a common theme in the Guite household. Five months later, the 26-year-old has completed more than 100 stadium drawings and has raised £4,298 and counting. “So many things he does astound me,” says Michelle on a Zoom call with Niall from their home in Sheffield, England, “and I just giggle [with pride].”

The Guite humor also makes an appearance in his drawings. After researching an aerial shot of the football grounds via Google and referencing the book “Football Grounds from the Air” for accuracy, Niall adds what he calls “jokes.” Example? When depicting Tottenham Hotspur Stadium — which he’s been commissioned to do three times — and a North London derby clash against rivals Arsenal, Niall made the section for the visiting fans very small. “People who have realized the joke will say, ‘Thanks for that! I laughed a lot,'” says Michelle, a psychiatric nurse.

Niall was given every opportunity to appreciate art. He and his art-loving family, including his older brothers, Keiran and Declan, often visited galleries and walked through the nearby Yorkshire Sculpture Park. But it was a pop-up book about architecture, with tall buildings and intricate cathedrals, Niall received as a 5-year-old that sparked his curiosity in drawing. “I liked the buildings,” says Niall, “and the shapes and sizes. They were interesting to look at.” Michelle remembers one of his first drawings of a street map, complete with buildings, roads and green space. The map took over the attic floor and he moved toy cars all around it. And like his stadium drawings, his first creations were always from an aerial view to give it a “different perspective,” Niall says.

During this time, Niall was also figuring out how to navigate intellectual and learning disabilities: autism, dyslexia — which affected his ability to read — and dyspraxia, which meant it took him longer to learn new skills. “Niall has auditory processing issues. He has to take time to understand what people are saying to him before he can formulate an answer,” says Michelle, “and this leads to difficulty communicating with people. It can be very frustrating and life-limiting for him. He is, in fact, a very funny and astute young man whose difficulties have allowed him to develop great compassion and tolerance for others.”

This also meant Niall had trouble making friends at school. He sought out independent activities like playing with his cars in the attic, drawing and playing with Legos “all of the time,” he says. Sarah Williams, Niall’s physical education teacher throughout primary and secondary school, remembers Niall as a shy boy who had a hard time articulating and who had to work extra on developing motor skills and coordination. “He always had a big smile,” says Williams, now a lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. “But don’t be misled by the smile; he’s incredibly driven and motivated. If he’s going to draw one stadium, he’ll draw every stadium in the U.K. He’s realizing what a gift he has.”

Whereas Niall played by himself at school, he relaxed around other children with similar disabilities on the basketball court or at football practice. His confidence grew as he developed new skills — eventually helping his basketball team win gold at the Special Olympics World Games Los Angeles 2015 — and saw that he could accomplish whatever he put his mind to. And perhaps most important, he started making friends. Jazz Owen saw this progression and growth firsthand. She has coached Niall since he started playing basketball as a 12-year-old. “He sees the struggles he’s had and the people he’s relied on, and he mirrors that support to other [people with disabilities],” says Owen, a tutor for people with learning disabilities. “I can now put him with any player across the country and he’ll replicate the support he’s had.”

Niall, Owen says, was the reason the team won gold at the World Games. Many of the starting players were close to fouling out and she needed someone to get under the basket and take the foul. “I told him, ‘Make yourself big,'” Owen says. “He put his body on the line, going up against big men. He did everything I asked him, and because of what he did, he became the star of the team.”

That night in Los Angeles, Owen heard music coming from Niall’s dormitory in the student accommodations. It was well past 11 p.m., late enough to get into trouble. The song “Fly,” by Avril Lavigne, played loudly: We were all meant to fly. Spread your wings across the universe. It’s your time to. It’s your time to shine.

“He and three of his teammates were running around the room, flying around like airplanes,” says Owen, who couldn’t bear to stop them. “They were so proud and so happy to win gold. I had a whole conversation with Niall. ‘We’re not doing anything wrong,’ he had said. The conversation was flawless; he didn’t struggle for words. He was confident, cheeky. There was pure pride and happiness on his face.”

Back in Sheffield, Michelle says Niall was motivated by Special Olympics’ message of inclusion and the political message of fighting discrimination he saw at the World Games. This sparked another interest for Niall: public speaking. With the help of a mentor and lots of practice, the boy who appeared to have nothing to say was now talking in front of schools and colleges. It was his way of raising awareness of people with disabilities and the opportunities Special Olympics and sports had provided for him. To date, he’s done about 10 events.

But perhaps the biggest way he raises awareness? Lots of social media, Niall says. Twitter, specifically. There he reveals himself as artist, advocate and entrepreneur. Niall plans to fundraise for Special Olympics Great Britain until the end of the year, and then he’s thinking about what he might do on his own. He recently bought an iPad and is using Apple Pencil, a wireless stylus pen, to draw digital images. This will allow for easy reproduction and the ability to meet the requests for T-shirts with his drawings on the front. He’d like to make a career of it if possible, he says.

Niall is a testament to what’s possible. And now his modest idea of drawing 26 football stadiums and raising £260 is forging a path to his future — and creating a pathway of what’s possible for others with, and without, intellectual disabilities.

Turning to speak to Niall on the Zoom call, Michelle says, “Young families with children with disabilities can look at you as a person and say, ‘That’s amazing. If he can do that, what can my young person do?'”

To see more of Niall’s work and follow his story, find him on Twitter @niallguitesogb4.


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

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