Unified Track gives special-needs athletes reason to glow

Author: Tammy L. Lane • First Posted: Tuesday, April 12, 2016

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Peer mentor Elizabeth Buccholtz and athlete Conor Healy celebrate his shot-put throws.

Peer mentor Elizabeth Buccholtz and athlete Conor Healy celebrate his shot-put throws.

Peer mentor Elizabeth Buccholtz and athlete Conor Healy celebrate his shot-put throws.Coach Sharon Snell helps Allison Vassil find the right grip in the shot-put box.As athletes waited on the grassy infield, Creek's Walker Redmon received encouragement from Lafayette senior Landon Young (seated). Athletes and peers stretched out to warm up before their events.Fans cheered the athletes in the 100-meter dash at the Commodore Classic. Peer partner Laken Russell (left) congratulates Victoria Taylor and Walker Redmon after the race. Everyone receives a medal, and no one cares who comes in first.Tates Creek’s inaugural Unified Track team includes four students with special needs and several peer mentors. Back row from left: Brittany Slayton, Laken Russell, Allison Vassil, Elizabeth Buccholtz, Walker Redmon, and Sarah Shalash; middle, from left, Sarah Jordan, Conor Healy, Victoria Taylor, and Jensen Butler; front row of coaches: Kelli Burton, Katie Shelton, and Michael Phelps. Not pictured: peer partner Amani Shalash, Coach Shealynn Hall, and Coach Chris Hawboldt.

With a “Chariots of Fire” earworm as backdrop, families and fans cheered mightily for a handful of athletes as they sprinted down the track in this spring’s Commodore Classic. The four students with special needs, along with their peer mentors, completed the 100-meter dash with record-setting smiles. Each received a medal at the finish line before heading home with another golden memory in the books.

Tates Creek High School is the first in Fayette County Public Schools to offer Unified Track, which is under the Special Olympics umbrella. Unified Sports brings people with and without disabilities together on the same team to compete. Coach Chris Hawboldt heard about Unified Track at last year’s state meet and suggested it for Tates Creek, where colleagues who teach students with moderate and severe disabilities (MSD) eagerly signed up. “Most of my kids have gone to their brothers’ and sisters’ events and watched them on teams and clubs. We want them to feel like part of a team here at school just like everyone else,” teacher Kelli Burton said of her MSD students. “They practice with the track team, but peers help them participate at their level.”

When Burton put out the call for volunteers, senior Sarah Jordan was among a half-dozen who stepped up. “Special needs is dear to my heart, and I really want to help out,” said Sarah, who has cousins with MSD. She touted the Unified Track experience as “all-around amazing” for everyone involved. At practice and at meets, Sarah and the other peers are paired with the MSD athletes in each contest. For instance, the peers make sure the athletes line up properly in the box before they release the shot put; and in the dash, the peers run alongside their partners. “They can’t wait for practice after school and so look forward to it,” Sarah said of the MSD athletes. “It’s cool to watch them cheer each other on as they compete. It’s such a good atmosphere.”

Surrounded by supportive families, the Tates Creek students gathered in the stands to await their moment during the Commodore Classic, an invitational meet featuring several counties. Sophomore Allison Vassil was ready to run, saying, “I know I’m going to win. It’s easy for me.” Since her group was the only one competing in the Unified events, the day’s lineup was limited to the 100-meter dash and the shot put, where each MSD athlete took three turns. Unified Track also allows students to compete in the long jump and the 4x100 relay. “It’s great that she gets to be part of something at school and be on a team,” said Laureen Vassil, Allison’s mother, whose camera was at the ready.

Later, as the Unified Track athletes lingered on the grassy infield, one boy accepted shot-put tips from Lafayette High School senior Landon Young. Landon, a multi-sport athlete, also praised the Commodores’ initiative with special-needs students. “It gets them out in the community and gets their faces out there,” he said. “They get out here and interact, and we like seeing their smiles and giving them high-fives.”

Burton hopes interest and participation will grow at Tates Creek and throughout the district. Meanwhile, her students look forward to May’s regional and state meets, where they can meet Unified Track teams from other Kentucky schools. “Our athletes are so overjoyed to get to be a part of their school track team,” Burton said. “Needless to say, their parents are equally thrilled to be in the stands among all the other high school parents and watching their children represent TCHS.”

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