Blazing a trail

With a burst of speed, Brandon Mitchell makes his way down the long jump runway.

At the last minute, just before reaching the end of the runway, Mitchell leaps into the air and glides into the sand landing pit.

Then, the Columbus North freshman dusts himself off amid the cheers coming from both Columbus East, North and Edgewood fans who had lined up parallel to the runway to see Mitchell and his fellow competitors compete.

This is Unified track and field, the 21st and newest IHSAA sport. Student-athletes with intellectual disabilities compete alongside Unified partners in a team setting.

“It’s a really good time,” North coach Corey Londeree said. “You can see the Unified partners and the Unified athletes coming together as one, and that’s what it’s all about. It’s an amazing experience, and it’s very powerful to be a part of it. I enjoy it every day that we’re out here.”

Becoming sanctioned

The IHSAA Student Advisory Committee first came to the governing body’s board in December 2012, asking the board to form a partnership with Special Olympics Indiana. The advisory committee came back in November 2013 and asked the IHSAA board to sponsor Unified track and field.

“The board said ‘Yes’ both times,” said Lee Lonzo, director of Champions Together, the partnership between the IHSAA and Special Olympics Indiana. “I’m very proud to say it started with kids.”

Thirteen schools from around the state participated last year, with Warsaw winning the first Unified track and field state championship. Lonzo called the first year “an overwhelming success.”

This year, 57 schools are entered in five sectionals, which will take place May 30. The top two teams from each sectional qualify for the state finals June 6 at Indiana University.

“(Last year), the turnaround time was pretty quick for schools,” Lonzo said. “We went to the area principals meetings this past fall and told all the principals and athletic directors about Unified Track. They were like ‘Why not?’ They said ‘If we can support that, there’s no reason not to.'”

East, North on board

East and North were two of the schools to form Unified teams this season. The Olympians have 20 athletes — 10 Unified and 10 partners — while the Bull Dogs have 14 athletes — seven of each.

“When I was at an IHSAA meeting, they were promoting the Unified sports, and we decided that’s something we needed to do at Columbus East High School,” East athletics director Bob Gaddis said. “It goes back to giving kids an opportunity to get connected to the school. I can tell you, at that first meet, they had a great time.”

Peggy Myers, an East faculty member, coaches the Olympians Unified team.

“It’s been amazing,” Myers said. “The kids have all made such good friends, and it’s been great competition and learned teamwork, too.

“It’s a good, inclusive way to meet their needs,” she said. “It’s not so separate and a special event just for them. They have partner athletes in with them, too, and I think it gives them true competition and allows them to make more friends and have role models and have good models for how to do the events, too.”

Most of the eligibility rules for Unified track and field are the same as the IHSAA rules for all sports. Athletes must be students enrolled at the school for which they are competing. One difference from other sports is that Unified athletes may compete more than four years if they are enrolled in school longer.

Unified track and field has five events — the long jump, shot put, 100 meters, 400 and 4×100 relay. For every event entered, there has to be an equal number of Unified athletes and partners. The partners can be members of a school’s varsity track team, but cannot be entered on the sectional roster.

Kenton McInteer, a senior Unified athlete at East, runs the 400 and 4×100 relay.

“It’s pretty fun,” McInteer said. “My mom signed me up for it, so I thought I’d try it out.”

“They have a good time,” Londeree said. “When we’re in the classroom, we like to get outside and get some exercise. This is a good time for them to get out here and compete and get some exercise and get to socialize with other team members and other teams across the state, too.”

A winning background

Joey Bastian and Ty Bentham know a little bit about teamwork. Bastian was a starting offensive lineman on East’s state championship football team in 2013, and Bentham was the starting goalkeeper on North’s sectional title-winning boys soccer team last fall.

This spring, rather than counting the days until the end of school, Bastian, a senior, and Bentham, a junior, have been working with the Unified athletes as Unified partners.

“I love competing against these guys,” Bentham said. “It’s great to help them, great to play with them and to practice with them, too. It’s a great time.”

Although the Olympians didn’t have a Unified track and field team last year, Bastain worked with special needs students in his role as vice president of Best Buddies.

“It’s a blast,” Bastain said. “It’s inspiring. The kids are great. It’s just a fun time.”

If you go

What: Unified Track and Field Edgewood Sectional

When: 1 p.m. May 30

Where: Edgewood High School

Teams: Columbus East, Columbus North, Brown County, Bloomington North, Center Grove, Decatur Central, Edgewood, Mooresville, Plainfield, Terre Haute North, Terre Haute South

Advancement: The top two teams qualify for the state finals June 6 at Indiana University.

Author photo
Ted Schultz is sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at tschultz@therepublic.com or 812-379-5628.