#1StudentNWI: Portage High School Unified Track Team strives for inclusivity

#1StudentNWI: Portage High School Unified Track Team strives for inclusivity

What’s recently happened?

Runners show grit as they race down the track

The Portage High School (PHS) Unified Track Team is back at it for another season of fun! Unlike other sports in the district, this unique team experience is not all about winning; it’s about feeling included. Unified Track is a sport where athletes compete alongside their partners in events like long jump, the 100 meter dash, and the 4x100 meter relay. The beauty of Unified Track is that on a roster for a meet, all participants are listed without anyone knowing who might be an athlete or partner. The environment is meant to be safe and positive where a disability does not mean inability. 

Currently, the team has been competing in meets once a week against schools in the area. Although this sport is relatively new, it has exploded in popularity with fewer than 20 students in the first season and, now, 50 students just three years later. 

Veteran members Riley Kelley and Alan Ronces both agree that the environment at Unified Track is the most amazing, infectious energy around the school. 

“Everyone has been able to see how much of a family this group has become,” said Kelley. 

“The privilege to be a part of this group of kids is truly the most amazing opportunity around. I think lots of people see that when looking at the group,” added Ronces.

Unified Track is not all about record-breaking times; many times, the participants’ ability to cheer for all players and teams at each meet is what stands out. During the first meet of the season versus Chesterton and Michigan City, many Portage members were seen high-fiving and rooting for the other two teams. The environment of Unified Track is meant to be a different and more uplifting experience compared to a non-unified sport. 

 What’s coming up?

In less than two weeks, the Unified team will be headed to the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) Sectionals match against all other schools around PHS. With the very successful and fun regular season over, the team is excited to compete in their postseason. In previous seasons, the team has not been able to move past the Sectionals round, but spirits are looking bright, and the team is hoping to make it to Regionals this postseason. 

Athletes giving it their all in the 100m dash

“We’ve gotten third for the past two years,” said Senior Brooke Trinidad. “This year though is the year! We are making it to Regionals, and I know this for a fact.” 

Focused athlete prepares for their shot put attempt

Staff spotlight:

Coach Strom leads the group with compassion and encourages perseverance

For Coach Todd Strom, it was destined that he would be the head coach of Unified Track. Strom was asked to become an Applied Physical Education (PE) teacher during his second year of teaching. Alongside Colleague and former PHS Teacher Renee Turpa, Storm dove head first into PE for students with disabilities. 

“I was a bit hesitant at first as I had very limited experience working with students with disabilities,” said Strom, “After a couple of weeks, I was in love with our kids. When the opportunity presented itself to start this program, I jumped at it.” 

To Strom, the Unified Track members are truly remarkable, and he is not wrong at all. Each member has their own incredible story of adversity and passion for the events they participate in. It is a special place for everyone to join in as one unified group of individuals.

“I am never going to quantify in words what Unified Track is and what it means. Come out and see a meet and you’ll understand how amazing this sport is,” said Strom. “Everyone is treated equally, and you are placed into heats or flights based solely on times and/or distances, not on if you have a disability or not. One of the most amazing things is whoever is last is usually cheered on the loudest. Everyone supports one another, even those on different teams.”

Student spotlight:

Nolan Sheets exudes positivity throughout the meet

Second Year Member Nolan Sheets has been assisting athletes with having the most fun possible while also being a star competitor as well. 

 Sheets volunteers as a peer tutor for one of his mods at PHS. His role is to assist students with coloring, spelling, math, and reading. Many of the students that Sheets tutored were Unified athletes. That eventually led him to joining the team later that same spring. 

“I joined Unified because, in my freshman year, I was a peer tutor and I loved the kids,” said Sheets. “I wanted to spend more time with them and learn more about how they live and be a part of the experience.”

When participating in Unified, Sheets dives head first into the action and fun with the athletes. Sheets is the one cheering on all members of the Portage Unified team and the visiting teams too. 

“The meets where everyone is wearing their uniforms looking unified and talking about our days bring me a lot of joy,” said Sheets.