At schools across the Region, the Unified Track and Field program is more than just a sports initiative – it's a testament to inclusivity and equality. In an exclusive interview with coaches from different parts of the Region, GreatNews.Life (GNL) explored the roots of the program and what inspired its initiation.
“Our Unified Track and Field started in 2015,” said Sarah Albers, Valparaiso High School Unified Track and Field coach. “Almost 10 years ago, the principal and a special education teacher were inspired by the partnership of Special Olympics Indiana and Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) to promote leadership and inclusion in Valpo High School.”
Each high school in Northwest Indiana has recognized the need for more inclusion across the board when it comes to sports, the reason a lot of schools began the program in the first place.
Additionally, each program has a set structure that makes it possible for everyone on the team to gain trust in one another.
“We treat Unified Track how we would treat any other sport,” said Todd Strom, Portage High School Unified Track and Field coach. “At the beginning of the season, we will do team building activities so students can get to know one another, start building relationships, and really create a fun and trusting environment. Once we get closer to the start of the season we will identify one or two events that each member of the team will participate in and have event-specific practices.”
Within the Portage program, among many others, teams have key goals and objectives as to how the season goes really early on along with inclusivity in all aspects.
“The key goals and objectives for me as a coach are for the student-athletes and partners to build a rapport with each other, I'm really big on connection,” said Ryan Panos, La Porte High School Unified Track & Field coach. “I teach special education here at La Porte, and one of my main philosophies is if you can build that connection and trust with people, they'll do their best for you. I think connection definitely helps with fostering inclusivity as well as athletic development. I feel it's an amazing thing watching student-athletes be able to accomplish things in Unified Track that they wouldn't have tried otherwise. The other schools and spectators help make it such a special thing.”
These students with intellectual disabilities accomplish things with flying colors because of the support from the coaches and student partners.
“We have some of the most amazing human beings on our team that I have ever seen,” said Strom. “They support one another in almost every aspect of life they can. You will even see our student-athletes, as well as members of other schools that we compete against, supporting members of other schools as well.”
Along with the support, student-athletes and their partners compete at the same level as a typical track and field meet.
“We have meets with other Duneland Athletic Conference (DAC) schools with Unified Track and it's run like a typical track and field meet. The events include the 100m dash, 400m, 4 x 100m relay, long jump, and shot put,” said Panos. “During season meets, all of the athletes and partners can compete in all of the events to get times and distances for the DAC Invitational and Sectionals and such. We have athletes and partners who compete at every event during the season. In regards to accommodation, I try to allow the athletes to compete in any event they feel comfortable in. The pride the athletes exude when they complete an event is so awesome.”
With the competitions in mind, the coaches emphasize the need for connection in any possible way they can, which is huge for the athletes.
“Coaches encourage students to find each other at lunch and say hi in the hallways,” said Albers. “What seems like two small requests have been life-changing for some. I see groups coming to cheer on their new friends in other sports or attend other community events together.”
All the connections of the student-athletes, coaches, and partners of these programs set out a good example as to why they do what they do, and the success stories keep them going.
“Every meet has success stories and memorable events,” said Panos. “If I had to choose just one, I would select the 2023 Sectionals at Valparaiso High School. Just the joy of the athletes and partners throughout the day and being able to compete in an IHSAA Sanctioned Sectional was quite a thrill for our athletes. The partners couldn't have been more supportive. We have a really great group of kids.”
In fostering a collaborative and inclusive environment, it is imperative for parents and the broader community to actively engage and support the Unified Track and Field program at high schools that participate.
“We would love to see more people at meets,” said Albers. “Unified Track is one of the best sporting events to see in terms of sportsmanship. Unified students from all schools are cheering everyone on—the cheering from the stands and the field doesn’t stop until the last person crosses the finish line.”
As the program strives to foster an environment of excellence and camaraderie, the words of a coach advocating for high standards and the importance of team membership seamlessly align with the ethos of Unified Track.
“One of my greatest coaches used to tell us, ‘Surround yourself with great people and great things will happen,’” said Strom. “To sustain our success, we have to keep our standards high regarding what it takes to be a member of this team. It is a special experience and an experience I hope many future young men and women of our school district will be able to be a part of.”