She’s played high-level hockey for a dozen years, but Taylor VanEpps is having the most fun she’s ever experienced this spring.
The Columbus North senior is part of the Bull Dogs’ Unified Track & Field team, a coed sport that features athletes with intellectual and physical disabilities working together with Unified partners. North and Columbus East compete in the sectional today at Edgewood.
“It is the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had,” VanEpps said. “The feeling that you get when you know that you are changing these kids’ lives is indescribable.”
VanEpps has been on skates since she was 3 and has played hockey since age 5 or 6, calling it a part of her life for as long as she can remember.
After playing hockey with boys for five years, VanEpps traveled to Columbus, Ohio, every other weekend for four years to play in a Triple-A girls league. She spent another year playing for a team based out of Dallas.
“It made me focus on what was truly important,” VanEpps said. “It was really a life-changing experience. I got to meet a lot of people from a lot of different places, and it really opened my eyes to the real world.”
VanEpps stayed closer to home this year. She played for the Single-A Indy Fusion.
Next year, VanEpps plans to major in accounting or pre-law and play club hockey at DePaul University.
“I always knew I wanted to play club, but I never wanted to go to a school strictly for hockey because I knew that D-I was really hard to get into, and most of the D-III schools are liberal arts, and that isn’t what I’m interested in,” VanEpps said.
VanEpps’ senior project this year dealt with ColumBuddies, led by special education teacher Mary Hamlin. In ColumBuddies, students meet with special needs kids on Thursdays, with the group planning an activity in the community, such as laser tag.
Unified Track & Field began at North last year, but when VanEpps saw that it was available again this year, she jumped at the opportunity to participate.
“I knew I had to because I love working with these kids,” VanEpps said.
VanEpps competes in the long jump and 100 meters. In the 100, she runs behind visually-impaired athlete Austin Fields, helping him stay in his lane.
Fields transferred from Indiana School for the Blind, where he also participated in swimming. He said his favorite thing about Unified Track is running.
“It’s a tough job to do,” North coach Daniel Ho said of VanEpps’ role. “I let them try out different combinations, and they feel more comfortable as they go through the season. We’re happy to have both the athlete and the partner work together on this Unified Track team.”
Unified Track & Field
When: 10 a.m.
Where: Edgewood High School
Teams: Columbus East, Columbus North, Bedford North Lawrence, Bloomington North, Bloomington South, Edgewood, Indian Creek, Lawrenceburg, Salem, Terre Haute North, Terre Haute South