Sharing the track

Bradley Stevens, 21, of Maurertown, leads this group of the Champions Together track team during a recent practice outside Peter Muhlenberg Middle School in Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily

For the first time in Shenandoah County, students with and without disabilities competed alongside each other through Central High School’s Champions Together Unified Track and Field Event.

Last week’s track meet at the high school in Woodstock was the second in which team members ran within a week’s time. The first, on April 11 at Handley High School in Winchester, was Virginia’s first Champions Together event, which Varsity Track Coach Megan Smith said is a step in the right direction for unified sporting events.

In the Champions Together Club, she said, “there’s no separation between the students.”

Using $2,500 from a Special Olympics for an Interscholastic Unified Track and Field Grant, the school’s leadership class under the guidance of agriculture teacher Dana Fisher worked with special education teachers to help form Champions Together, said club president and high school junior Aaron Waller, 17.

The club has used the grant funding to buy uniforms, he said, but so far has been fortunate in being able to save most of its money for the remainder of the two-year program.

Debbie Rodriguez, 18, of Woodstock leaps in the broad jump during a recent Champions Together team practice. Rich Cooley/Daily

“We have plenty of money to make it really successful,” Aaron said.

One of five student leaders on the 19-member united track team, Aaron said he joined because of his interest in working with students who have disabilities, not necessarily track and field.

“No, actually I’m a swimmer,” he said, laughing.

Other volunteer team leaders — seniors Julie Sigler and Deborah Rodriguez, and juniors Kristin Derflinger and Stephanie Sfarnas — also joined with little previous experience.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they and 14 students with disabilities share the track on the county’s central campus with the Central High School varsity track team.

John Albright, 18, right, a Champions Together athlete, practices with members of the high school varsity track team using starting blocks. Albright participates in both Champions Together and the high school varsity track team. Rich Cooley/Daily

At their first two track meets, club members participated in the long jump, shot put, 100-meter dash and 4X100-meter relay. The team can even participate in Virginia High School League championships, if the school qualifies.

Smith, a special education teacher who has volunteered with the Special Olympics for 10 years, said the club at Central was possible through a collaborative effort that started with Principal Melissa Hensley and Athletic Director Kenny Rinker.

Susan Boyce, an instructional assistant at the school, is the team’s assistant coach.

Special Olympics events around the region have included the Little Feet Meet for elementary school children, and others that recruited athletes from area schools. But Smith said Champions Together is the first organized effort that has targeted ongoing sports in schools.

“Hopefully more and more schools will buy into it,” she said.

Champions Together athlete Sam Homer, 16, of Edinburg, sprints during a long jump attempt during a recent practice outside Peter Muhlenberg Middle School in Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily

She said students without disabilities have gained insight into working with a diverse group, and many students with disabilities are enjoying their first chance at playing a team sport.

“The inclusion aspect has been a huge benefit,” said Smith.

The next track meet will be at Handley on May 5, and Smith said participating students with any level of disability are welcome to join the team.

“We don’t have any limitations,” she said.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com

Kendra Boyce, 10, of Woodstock leads this group of Champions Together athletes as they stretch at the start of a recent practice. Rich Cooley/Daily