Smiles all around
MICHIGAN CITY — If smiles had been on sale at three for $1 during Monday’s Duneland Athletic Conference Unified Track meet, a vendor could’ve made a fortune.
Happy faces filled the grounds at Michigan City High School’s track and field complex, where roughly 175 kids from seven participating schools took part in the DAC’s first gathering for teams of athletes with intellectual disabilities and general education students.
“This opportunity means everything to me and to him. It’s wonderful,” said Danise Lewis, a mother of six whose son Josh ran for the host Wolves. “I’m so glad they came up with something for them, to give them the chance to do this. A mentally challenged child in the household is just like the rest of them. They do good things and they do bad things. He’s never let his disability get him down.”
Josh learned to run from his siblings, and he and his older brother Jacob, were both approached by M.C. Athletic Director Craig Shaman, the meet coordinator, about joining the Unified team. He’s been a part of it for four years, qualifying for state on the 400-meter relay as a freshman.
“It’s fun to be out there,” Josh said, noting how the cheers of the crowd make him do better. “We help each other. You’ve got to be a team player. You have to have heart. You have to have a lot of respect for the team. We don’t allow disrespect here. Every team is a winner out here. Whether you lose or not, we shake your hand.”
Like Lewis, La Porte senior Nick Ferrell was happy to be a part of the first DAC meet.
“It was pretty cool to do this with everyone here,” Ferrell said. “It’s my last year, so I’m going to miss it a lot. I learned a lot about teamwork, how to push yourself, to have fun. I made friends with everyone. It’s an experience I’ll always remember.”
La Porte junior Garrott Ott-Large made friends with Cameron Hardesty when they were classmates at Kingsbury Elementary School and decided to join the Unified team last year. The Slicers basketball standout was second to freshman brother Grant, also a hoops teammate, in the shot put.
“Two other basketball players do it and we’re trying to get a couple more,” Garrott said. “A lot of people who hear about it think it’s just Special Olympics.
It’s been a good experience. It’s made be better at being patient, taking my time, understanding stuff. We only practice for an hour twice a week, but it’s a lot of fun. That’s the goal. The boys, the girls, we’re all just seen as normal athletes. They’re a part of us and we’re a part of them. We’re all a team, a family. It’s all about making memories that will last a lifetime.”
Danise Lewis was a little emotional thinking about it being Josh’s last home meet.
“I hope they further it with different sports so these kids have the same options as regular students,” she said.
The meet featured the 100, 400, 400 relay, shot put and long jump, the same format that is used in other Unified meets. Unlike regular-season meets, the conference meet was not all-comers as the larger teams like Valpo and Merrillville had qualifying to determine their lineups. All the participants signed a big poster featuring the logos of the schools, were treated to Jimmy John’s and gathered for a conference group photo afterward.
“We tried to make it special for the kids,” Shaman said.