Relationships at core of unified track teams

Herald photos by Daniel Vasta/The Herald
Jasper's Jordan Preston, left, competes in the 100-meter dash during Monday's Unified track and field meet in Jasper. 


JASPER — The Jasper boys and girls track teams conducted their final home meet of the season Monday against Southridge, and sent their seniors off as winners for their last trot, jump and throw around Alumni Stadium. The Wildcat boys defeated their Raider counterparts 93 to 39, and the girls won 83 to 49. But they aren’t the main subject of this feature.

Instead, there was another set of track teams competing Monday under their respective school banners. Their faces might not have been immediately familiar to the bleacher crew that gathers to watch high school track and field, but their enthusiasm and effort were more than enough to win them over by the time the final scores were tallied.

The Jasper and Southridge unified track and field teams were on full display as they suited up to run, jump and throw their way to victory. Similar to the football program in the fall, the unified track program is a joint venture between the Indiana High School Athletic Association and the Special Olympics that serves as an opportunity for students with special needs to participate in sports outside of the traditional avenues schools typically offer.

Jasper’s program has been in existence for the past five years, and special needs teachers Julie Henke and Joe Shelton have been more than happy to answer the call to organize and coach the team.

Jasper's Jackson Kabrick, right, congratulates Adam Nordhoff during Monday's Unified track and field meet in Jasper. 

“They wanted to bring a competitive sport to our special needs population, and it took off from there,” said Henke, who has been with the team for the past four years.

“It’s all about acceptance,” added Shelton, who has coached the team for five years. “Accept one another, help one another, we’re all here together.”

February marks the start of their season. Henke and Shelton do what they can in their capacity as teachers to encourage their students to come out and participate, but they also look to students from Jasper’s general population to lend their support as well. About 23 students with special needs (“athletes”) and 28 students (“partners”) make up the coed team, but there are others who volunteer to help out with organizing practice or meets on a rotating basis.

Monday night’s competition against Southridge’s unified team marked the third meet of Jasper’s season; they’ll have five in total, in addition to sectionals, regionals and a state meet that concludes the season in June. The unified meet included the 100 meter dash, 400 meter dash, long jump, shotput and the 4x100 meter relay. Jasper beat Southridge 156 to 102, but for Henke and Shelton, the final score was beside the point when it comes to the purpose of the team.

“That is secondary,” said Shelton. “We’re more focused on them showing up, having fun, building relationships, and having our athletes and partners teach each other. Results? Who cares?”

Jasper's Jordan Preston competes in shot put during Monday's Unified track and field meet in Jasper. 

Be that as it may, the kids seem to care a great deal, as the competitive fervor is seen in their eyes when they race from the starting block. But by that same token, the kids are also quick to turn around and encourage the other participants to finish their race, no matter how long it takes. It’s something everyone can appreciate — and learn from — no matter your walk of life.

“There’s nothing like going to a unified event,” Henke said. “Everybody is happy for everybody. It doesn’t matter who wins.”

“Nobody’s mad,” Shelton added. “Lot of sportsmanship. They’re going to compete hard. So many things other athletes can learn from watching these guys compete.”

When it was all said and done, the athletes and partners gathered in the bleachers and sat together to watch the final events of the meet. And it’s those kind of moments Henke and Shelton hope they are able to provide the kids who choose to join the unified team.

“Our athletes teach our partners a lot, and vice versa,” Henke said. “It teaches acceptance and social skills. The relationships are the biggest part of it.”

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