Unified Track Brings Students Together
Track season is winding down for athletes across the country, including teams in Indiana that participate in Unified Track and Field.
Unified sports are a collaboration between the Indiana High School Athletic Association and Special Olympics. Track is in its sixth season as a unified competition in Indiana, as the sport grows, so does its challenges.
Unified Sports are played in many states. Besides track, there’s bowling, bocce ball, and flag football in Indiana. Other states play other sports, too.
The teams are made up of student athletes, kids with intellectual disabilities, and student partners, those without intellectual disabilities. They compete in the same way, together on one team.
Jeff Mohler, the president of Special Olympics Indiana was at the regional competition in Kokomo last weekend. He said the vision of Unified Sports is the relationships it fosters.
“Why are we here today? Honestly, it’s not really to do a track meet. It’s really to give opportunities so that people who normally wouldn’t be associated with each other, wouldn’t normally interact with each other, they’re given a reason to do so.”
But they’re also there for a track meet. The IHSAA regulates Unified Track the same way it does any other high school sport. And the rules clearly state that the point is competition, not just participation.
Unified is different than regular track in a few key ways. It’s co-ed. There are only five events; three running and two field. And, it’s a team sport.
“Regular track for boys and girls is an individual event so if I’m the fastest in the state in my event, I’m going to go all the way to state and I’m going to be the state champion," said Lee Lonzo, the liaison between the IHSAA and Special Olympics Indiana.
Part of why Unified is a team sport is so all schools can compete no matter how big their teams are.
“We wanted to make sure a small school, Bremen, small school, could compete against Carmel, the largest high school in the state," Mohler said. "Both of them were original members of Unified Track and Field. And so when you do that, you have to limit the entries per event or else, if you allow unlimited entries, then we may as well just give the trophy right now before the season even starts to Carmel. Because they’re gonna put more kids on the track than anybody else.”
At the sectional, regional and state levels, coaches can only enter four students in each event; two student-athletes and two student-partners.
The students are broken into flights by previous performance. So a kid that has run 12 second 100 meter dashes all season is going to be in a flight with students who have run similar times, same with a student who runs a 25 second 100 meter dash.
Each flight has the chance to earn the same amount of points. So if that faster runner wins their flight, they earn 10 points for their team. And so will the slower runner that wins their flight.
“So we have the same challenges that every varsity sport has, whether it’s football, or basketball or baseball or whatever,” said Patrick Schooly, the dean at Fishers High School. Schooly is also the head coach for the school's Unified Track, and his son is on the team. “Everyone has a challenge when they get down to tournament time to sectionals, what they’re going to do with their roster. And they have to make tough choices.”
As the sport grows the choices get tougher. The first year of Unified Track and Field there were 13 teams in the entire state. This year there were more than 100, and 90 schools competed at the sectional level.
Schooly’s team at Fishers went from nine kids the first year to 78 kids this year. With more athletes it means more of those tough choices.
“It’s hard to leave any kid, it’s hard to leave great kids off a sectional roster or a regional roster," Schooly said. "But we always preach ‘hey, this is a team sport’ and we’re gonna do what we can do to advance because we owe that to everybody that’s involved to do everything we can to advance as a team.”
Schooly said they try to give students more chances to compete at regular season track meets, where there is no four-entry limit. And they try to communicate well with parents so they understand how the competition works.
Mohler said with more teams and athletes the sport will have to continue to evolve. But, at the meets, the friendships and empathy bred in the sport are clear.
“You’re not looking for, ‘that person’s an athlete, that person’s a partner.’ What you’re doing is, ‘oh, there’s Warren Central, oh there’s Lawrence North, oh, there’s Elkhart Memorial.’ And that’s the beautiful thing about what’s happening today is kind of labels don’t matter anymore, other than your team name.”
Moving forward the sport may need to add additional events or continue to expand the sectional and regional contests so more students get the chance to participate and compete.
The top six teams from both regionals move on to the state competition Saturday at Indiana University.