His delivery showed that Andrew Peterson was, indeed, different than most in the crowd of about 1,500 students who were locked on his every word in the Columbus East High School gym.
But no one in that crowd Wednesday could have questioned the fact he was special in very positive ways.
Peterson, a national champion Special Olympics track and field athlete, slowly, deliberately told East’s whole-school assembly about his struggles to interact with society after suffering brain damage at birth due to fetal alcohol syndrome.
“In elementary school, most kids couldn’t understand me when I spoke,” the 21-year-old Indianapolis resident said. “They laughed at me and called me names. Other kids walked past me like I didn’t exist. Nothing in life ever has been easy.”
Adopted by running coach Craig Peterson, Andrew Peterson said he gained valuable self-confidence through running that helped him make progress in all aspects of his life. He continues to run and compete, as well as deliver motivational speeches to students throughout Indiana.
“I don’t ever want your pity,” he told the students on Wednesday. “Rather, I need your respect that all people with disabilities deserve. I need the commitment of the students of Columbus East to show respect.”
The program, called Champions Together, was delivered through a partnership between the Indiana High School Athletic Association and Special Olympics Indiana. It is a collaborative partnership that promotes servant leadership among students with the hope of changing their lives in a positive way along with the lives of those with intellectual disabilities.
The program hopes to create awareness and opportunities for inclusion as it relates to all individuals with intellectual disabilities while encouraging volunteerism in the student body.
Last year, the IHSAA sanctioned a Unified Track and Field event conducted before the state high school boys meet at Indiana University. Athletes competed in two sectional-qualifying events before the state meet. Events included were the 100-meter dash, the 400-meter dash, the 4X100 relay, shot put and long jump. Special Olympics Indiana provided technical support to schools participating in Unified Track and Field as well as financial grants to help schools with start-up costs.
Columbus East and Columbus North, which didn’t participate in the first year, both will field teams for this year’s Unified Track and Field event.
“We are very excited to have sports teams which combine students with and without disabilities,” said Karen Lomax, the special education coordinator at Columbus East.
Lomax explained that such a competition took a major step by waiving some IHSAA rules that had prevented all the student-athletes from competing.
After seeing the success of last year’s Unified Track and Field event, East athletics director Bob Gaddis said the school wanted to “jump in completely.”
Columbus East will become a “Banner School,” which meant it would host Wednesday’s assembly to encourage acceptance and understanding throughout the student body toward students with disabilities. East has approximately 180 students with some kind of disability.
“Inclusion and awareness is a big part of public education,” Gaddis said.
East special education instructor Peggy Myers said she had a student last year who wanted to participate on the track team but was not allowed to because the student didn’t take the required six core classes. The Unified Track and Field event clears that hurdle.
“If I don’t win,” Peterson said, “at least let me be brave in the attempt.”