Unified sports create smiles all around
Cherry Hill Courier-Post
FRANKLIN TWP. – The distance didn’t matter.
The simple fact Kingsway High School sophomore Lexie Reed was running toward the sand in the long-jump pit Wednesday was all Joanne Gagne needed to exit John A. Oberg Field with a gigantic smile on her face.
“Nothing else has to happen today,” Gagne said. “Just for her to do that is a great accomplishment.”
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There were plenty of other moments that filled Gagne’s heart with joy though, and she wasn’t the only one that left Delsea with an abundance of happiness following its second annual unified track meet.
Unified sports, through a partnership with the NJSIAA and the Special Olympics, offer students with disabilities and opportunity to compete with partners without disabilities on the same field together.
Wednesday’s meet had six events – the shot put, long jump, 100 meters, 200, 400 and 4×100 relay – and while first, second and third-place trophies were handed out, everyone – including spectators – left the field feeling like a winner.
“When you see their faces, it doesn’t get any better,” said Delsea athletic director Ken Schoudt, who called last year’s meet the best event he’s ever been a part of as the school’s A.D.
This season’s meet could be classified as an even bigger success as seven teams participated, up from three in 2018.
The schools that competed were Delsea, Kingsway, Clayton, Hammonton, Mainland, Ewing and Hopewell Valley.
“It’s pretty spectacular,” said Abbie Bilinski, a special-education teacher and one of Delsea’s coaches. “You’ll see a lot of spectators coming out, a lot of community members, a lot of parents and lot of tears because this opportunity is something for these students they might never have had if not for today, and to see that really goes to show how much we’re growing as a society as far as inclusion.”
And the accomplishments, big and small, were celebrated and cheered with equal vigor.
Take Kingsway’s Reed, who had never jumped in the sand during competition before. While she was able to at practice, she always took her leap on the grass in meets.
When she saw others going for the sand on Wednesday, she gave it a go herself.
“It was wonderful,” said Gagne, Kingsway’s coach.
“It was really amazing watching her grow,” added Kingway freshman Grace Cassidy, who’s been Reed’s partner this year and ran next to her for her memorable leap. “… (We helped her) overcome her fears.”
Delsea’s Haley Burkert had an unexpected aid during her long jump – senior Zion Jamison.
Jamison, a member of the Crusaders’ basketball team, has formed a bond with Burkert this year after Burkert approached Jamison after one of his games and told him how good of a job he did.
He wanted to surprise her at the meet, so he hitched a ride from a friend and stood at the fence watching her compete. As soon Burkert saw him, her face lit up. When she completed her jump, she ran to Jamison and gave him a hug Jamison won’t soon forget.
“It was special for me,” he said. “I never had somebody genuinely caring about me being there for them. It’s about giving love back. She came to some of the games and some of the games my parents couldn’t make it to and she was there for me. She was special to me and I just felt the same love I feel from my parents from her. It was just so genuine. It’s overwhelming.”
Burkert feels the same about Jamison.
“We’re really good friends and being able to talk to him is really special,” she said.
While those two found each other on their own, the unified program has helped other kids form similar bonds. It also gives them an opportunity to feel normal.
Heather Flaim, Hammonton’s coach, helped get the program going in part because of her son Ronald, who’s deaf.
“It’s very heartwarming,” said Flaim, wife of Delsea track coach Ronn Flaim, who also helps the Crusader program. “When you see students that normally would just go home and they wouldn’t have any friends on the outside of school to be here, to meet new people and competing against each other … when you see their faces coming across the finish line and jumping as hard as they can, it’s so rewarding to know you’ve given them an opportunity they’ve never had before.”
Take Flaim’s pupil Nygel Waugh, a sophomore that finished second in both the long jump and the 100.
“It was fun, exciting just to compete,” Waugh said. “We came with intentions to win, but I just really wanted to compete today.”
Waugh had never participated in athletics before. While he’s been the school’s manager for football, basketball and baseball, being a part of the event himself was something more.
“It was a really special moment to actually win something as a team,” he said.
Victory wasn’t the important part though.
“We come together, we do activities together, it’s really about having fun,” said Delsea senior Aaron DiClaudio, who won the shot put. “I don’t really care what place I get as long as I have my friends beside me today to make me happy.”
Delsea’s success with the track program got them into unified bowling this year and Schoudt hopes on adding basketball next year.
“It’s competition at its finest,” he said.
Schoudt added later, “This is what it’s all about. This is why we do this job – the smiles on the kids’ faces.”
Josh Friedman; @JFriedman57; (856) 486-2431; email@example.com
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