You’d have a hard time finding four Fayette County athletes who are having more fun than Conor Healy, Walker Redmon, Victoria Taylor and Allison Vassil.
Weather conditions weren’t perfect, but their smiles pierced through the overcast skies during the Commodore Classic on Monday.
“I like it sunny and hot,” Healy and Taylor said nearly in tandem. Do they like to sweat? “Yeah,” Healy added with a hearty laugh.
All four are special needs students who as recently as a year ago never could have competed for the high school from which they’ll eventually graduate. Now they comprise the heart of Tates Creek’s first unified track and field team, a subset of the traditional track and field squad that combines students with and without mental and/or physical disabilities on the same team for practice and play.
The KHSAA, in collaboration with the Special Olympics, began sponsoring unified track and field in the regular and postseason during the 2014-15 school year. Tates Creek Coach Chris Hawboldt witnessed the state championship events last season and knew from that moment that unified events were something he wanted to incorporate into his program.
“I felt like Tates Creek really had a population that we could serve there,” Hawboldt said of the high school, whose student body includes 19 kids who have moderate and severe disabilities. He approached three moderate/severe disabilities teachers there — Kelli Burton, Katie Shelton and Shealynn Hall — and received a warm response. Their collaboration was critical.
“If I didn’t have those coaches, I wouldn’t have time to do it,” Hawboldt said. “I wouldn’t be able to give the time at practice to teach them what they have to do. It couldn’t happen.”
Burton, who started teaching special needs children in Atlanta in 1992 before moving to Fayette County six years later, brought some extra experience to the table. She previously coached track and field at Tates Creek Middle School. She was thrilled when Hawboldt approached her about starting the unified program.
“Having somebody that’s not a special needs teacher wanting to include our students with special needs was particularly exciting for me,” Burton said. “ … Whether students have special needs or whether they’re more typical peers, any time they’re involved with something outside of the school day that’s still tied to school, that’s good for kids.”
Eleven schools in addition to Tates Creek have declared to the KHSAA that they are participating in unified track: Calloway County, Dawson Springs, Eastern, Fulton County, Mercer County, Muhlenberg County, Murray, Oldham County, Owen County, Pendleton County and Pleasure Ridge Park.
For regional and state events the KHSAA sponsors exhibition heats in the 100-meter dash, 4x100-meter relay, 400-meter dash, shot put and long jump. The organization encourages schools to incorporate other events into their regular-season contests.
For now, Tates Creek’s unified athletes have only participated in the 100-meter dash and shot put in the two meets in which they’ve competed. They’ve practiced doing the relay but are “still working the kinks out there,” said Michael Phelps, a social studies teacher who jumped at the opportunity to help coach when he heard about the program.
Phelps said the student peers, with whom the special needs athletes are paired for events, do more work than the coaches during meets. “We just sit back and cheerlead, really,” he said.
Jensen Butler, a senior who played soccer at Tates Creek, is one of those student peers. In addition to running alongside their paired athlete during the racing events, the peers help guide athletes to check-in points and make sure they adhere to guidelines to avoid fouls, like stepping out of the back of the shot put circle rather than the front.
Butler had never worked with special needs kids before, but he said it’s been much easier than she anticipated.
“They’re so sweet and nice, and they really love it,” Butler said. She added with a laugh: “And they’re a lot faster than I thought they’d be.”
Hawboldt said the student peers get nothing tangible out of their involvement other than a hoodie, which all of the athletes receive.
“They’re doing this out of their own time,” he said. “They’re not doing this for service hours. They’re doing this for the love of those kids.”
It’s hard to miss Landon Young. The five-star defensive lineman bound for the University of Kentucky — all 6-foot-7, 285 pounds of him — also happens to be a state champion shot put and discus thrower. There’s a shroud of anonymity, he thinks, when the special needs athletes with whom he shares the field approach him to say hello and exchange high-fives, as a few did on Monday night.
“I don’t think they know me from Adam,” Young said. “ … This program allows them to get into a whole other world of people they just see me as someone else in that world that they can introduce themselves to, meet and interact with and just be able to expand their repertoire of people they get to know.”
All four of the kids have previously participated in Special Olympics events. Taylor enjoys rhythmic gymnastics and baseball. Healy, who plays basketball at church, said defense and shooting were his favorite parts of that game. How’d he do the last time he played? “I made five points and (had) one miss,” Healy said.
Their prior experiences have exposed them to athletics, but unified track at school is more inclusive just by the nature of how it’s organized, Burton said.
“Instead of having the typical peer partners come out and join us at our events, the kids are just part of the team there at school,” Burton said. “ … That’s why we’re really hoping it expands.”
Burton has shared her experience helping the team with MSD teachers at other middle schools and high schools in Fayette County. She’s heard back from an instructor at Henry Clay who seems eager to start a unified program there, possibly as soon as next season.
Blue Devils Coach Demetrius Gay is behind it.
“It’s not a track program. It’s all about kids,” Gay said. “That’s the slogan for Fayette County, so that’s what we try to live by. … I know we’ve got some kids in the school building who would like to run as well, so it’d be fun to do.”
‘That’s what it’s all about’
Tates Creek’s four pioneers — Healy, Redmon, Taylor and Vassil — aren’t the fastest or strongest kids to take the field each meet, but they don’t lack for confidence.
“They’ll talk as much smack as anyone else,” Phelps said. “And they love winning.”
And, like so many of their fellow athletes, they’ve got an urge to improve.
“I’m working on my abs,” Healy said.
He also likes the idea of building muscles in his arms, a fact he shared as he struck a strongman pose on Tates Creek’s bleachers.
So often in athletics, the focus is on the result . Unified events allow some of the more meaningful aspects of athletics — sportsmanship, camaraderie, perseverance — to shine through, Phelps said.
“I’d almost dread times when I was competing cause you have all this pressure on you,” said Phelps, a track-and-field athlete in high school. “But they come to school in the morning and are like, ‘Today’s track meet day, today’s track meet day!’ as soon as they get off the bus. They’re so excited to be out here.”
That level of elation — buoyed as fans in the stands and competitors on the field stop and cheer them on after the start of a unified event is announced over the public-address system — is unrivaled by anything Tates Creek track and field has accomplished in Hawboldt’s time with the program. He wants any school in the state interested in starting a unified program to reach out.
“If that’s the thing that hangs on after I’m done coaching, pfft, I win,” Hawboldt said. “That’s what all sports are about; giving kids an opportunity to do something that they wouldn’t normally do. ...
“Watching those homestands cheer for those kids, I don’t care if it rains all day. I don’t care because that was fun.”
The rain came, but not until well after the kids having the most fun had taken care of business.