Unified Track and Field

HAND OFF: Unified Track Athlete Vincent Hutson gets the baton from Partner Sam Kolterman and heads for home in the relay race at the Ashland-Greenwood Unified Track Meet on May 3. Hutson, Kolterman, Xander McLain and Kyla Swanson recently qualified for the state track meet and ran to a second place finish last Friday. (Staff Photo by Lisa Brichacek) 

WAHOO – At start of the school year, Wahoo Unified Track Assistant Coach Samantha Jacobson got asked quite a few times by athletes when they could start running.

Fall was not exactly the season for track and field events, but that shows exactly the kind of enthusiasm that her unified track athletes and their partners bring to the sport.

And, that is exactly why the Wahoo High School Unified Track Team can report another successful year.

Jacobson said the school was approached last year about forming a unified track team. The effort pairs one athlete with an intellectual disability with a partner from their school. The pair then completes together for the competition events.

Wahoo has had a unified bowling team for several years that has proven to be successful, so Jacobson said forming a Wahoo unified track team was the next step.

That step last year took four athletes all the way to the state track championships this year.

Xander McClain, Kyla Swanson, Vince Hutson and Sam Kolterman earned a trip to state to compete in the unified 4x100 relay. After a photo finish ending, the relay team was the state runner up in the event.

McClain and Swanson also competed in the long jump, finishing fifth, and the 100 meter dash, finishing sixth.

Jacobson said the Nebraska State Activities Associations recognizes unified sports, but unified track is not a fully sanctioned sport. This means the team can compete at meets, including the state meets, but do not earn medals and their events are only considered exhibitions.

Still, the chance to compete is its own reward for most of the athletes.

Unified track teams have the same rules for events as all other teams and must hone their skills over the season.

The athletes practice during the school day. Jacobson said there is a lot of repetition on the basics, such as working on strides for the dashes relays and counting steps for the jumps.

The unified athletes do not train as intense as other athletes might. But, the assistant coach said they still must push themselves to do better at each practice and each meet they participate in.

Unified competitions are held as part of regular track meets, although not all schools have unified teams. This season, the Wahoo unified track team competed in four meets leading up to the district meet.

To qualify for state, the top times and distances could be submitted from any of the meets athletes and their partners attended.

“But all of the kids who qualified for state had their P.R.s (personal records) at districts,” she said.

Jacobson said it has not been too difficult to find the partners for the unified athletes. The school has a group called Circle of Friends from which many of the partners belong to.

“We look for leadership skills and ones who will work with the kids,” she said.

The partners know from the start there might be some challenges and behaviors that have to be dealt with.

“We want to make sure the kids can handle it,” Jacobson added.

The results have been both positive and educational for both athlete and partner alike.

“I had one partner tell me ‘I had no idea they had to work so hard for something that comes naturally to me,’” she said. “And, they put their whole heart and soul into it.”

This year’s unified track team also consisted of Dustin Otte, Josh Ludtke, Trent Hollowell, Zach Sanderson, Lara Celesky, Ben Ericksen and Maya Foxworthy.

A few more athletes and partners were able to complete at the Ashland-Greenwood Track and Field Meet on May 3, because that was a Special Olympics sponsored event and was opened to also middle school students.

Jacobson said it will take more schools to form unified teams before it becomes fully sanctioned. She hopes that will happen, but expects Wahoo to continue a unified track team regardless.

“Now that the kids have a taste of it, I have to think we would continue. Otherwise, the kids would be so bummed,” she said.

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