18UnifiedwinnersThe Carver Classic track and field meet held annually at Reid Ross Classical High School’s John Daskal Stadium has always been a high point of the local outdoor track season.

But this year it made history, special history. The event saw a new record set for the largest number of special needs athletes competing in an organized track meet. It’s part of a program called Unified Track that was introduced to Cumberland County Schools by student activities director Vernon Aldridge.

The Unified program is designed to give special needs youngsters with either physical or emotional disabilities the opportunity to participate for an organized high school athletic team. So far, track is the only sport offered in Cumberland County, but officials are looking at the possibility of adding other sports by this fall.

Aldridge learned about Unified Track during a presentation at last year’s North Carolina Athletic Directors Association annual meeting in Wilmington.

The presentation was made by a group of Unified Track athletes, and Aldridge said it moved him. “I brought it back to our athletic directors and they wanted to get involved,’’ Aldridge said.

Currently, Cumberland County has Unified Track teams at seven of its 10 senior high schools. Aldridge estimates there were some 70 to 80 Unified athletes competing at the Carver Classic, which according to Nathan Brookins of North Carolina Special Olympics made it the largest number of Unified athletes to compete in a meet held in this state.

The team from Gray’s Creek won the Unified division of the Carver Classic meet. Earl Horan, who coached the Gray’s Creek special needs team and has a son on the squad, said the Unified concept focuses on inclusion for the special needs youngsters

“We want to give them the opportunity to participate in a team sport,’’ Horan said. “We’re trying to get past a sporting event and bring it to the hallways and classrooms and make sure they are seen around the school and get a little more opportunity to be a typical student.’’ Horan said the Unified track athletes wore their medals to school the day after the Carver Classic. “Their chests were bowed out,’’ Horan said. “It gives them a sense of confidence.’’

The special needs athletes don’t compete alone. They are paired with partners from other sports teams at their school who join them in the competition. The rules of Unified Track require one regular athlete for every special needs competitor. Horan said the wrestling team from Gray’s Creek has stepped up to provide six of the seven partners for the Gray’s Creek special needs athletes.

As both the parent of a special needs athlete and a special education teacher, Horan has a unique appreciation for the benefits of Unified Track.

“I see the pride my son has and the enthusiasm from other teachers,’’ he said. “The amount of support we get from students, administration and parents is very heartwarming.’’

Aldridge would love to see the program grow countywide and thinks the key is getting the word out to parents of special needs children. 

“Some parents may be leery of turning their child over to us for an athletic team,’’ he said. “If we can get the word out and show how positive the performance has been, we can get more kids involved.’’

Photo: 4x100 relay teams that took 3rd and 1st. Third place finishers (on left) are Anthony Liszewski, Cord Grimm and Camdon Liszewski (Gabrielle Veauthier not pictured). Champions are Nick Quinn, Andrew Esterly, Devonte Pierce and Trace Bechtol.

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