April 5 was a sunny spring day at the Nottingham High School track, and Lawrence High School students Christian Velasco and Gabriel Acevedo took to the starting line of the 100 meter dash after four heats of sprinters had gone before them. Both are special education students at the high school, and though both had been training with the track team the last couple of weeks, this was their first time competing in an actual meet.
It was a Wednesday afternoon tri-meet between Lawrence, Nottingham and Robbinsville High School, so the stands were packed. As Velasco and Acevedo waited for their signal, the crowd erupted. The official set off the starting pistol, and the pair sprinted off the line.
But then Velasco, a senior at LHS, stopped about 75 meters in, grinning—he couldn’t help but wave at the fans in the bleachers and competitors along the track, on their feet and screaming for him and Acevedo, a junior. Coach Andrew Deak, who ran along the grass next to the track to follow the boys, was visibly emotional as the boys neared the finish line. He urged Velasco to keep going, and he and Acevedo finished their first-ever race.
The two are half of Lawrence High School’s unified track and field team, which allows special needs students to compete alongside their varsity peers. Seniors Serenity Hall and Daria Loving also compete on the team. All four students run in the 100 meter and 200 meter races. They also throw shot put.
Lawrence High School athletic director Alyson Fischer introduced the program in January. Deak, who is an assistant in a special education course at the high school, and Vincent Damiano, the speech therapist at both the high school and Lawrence Middle School, signed on as coaches.
They both helped recruit students through a letter sent out to their parents, presenting it as an opportunity for them to be a part of a team, get outside, exercise, socialize—things that might come naturally other high schoolers, and things that others might take for granted when they try out for a sports team.
“They’ve never had the opportunity to be around or to be a part of a team this big,” Damiano said. “It’s big out here. There’s a lot of kids. They have different sports, male and female. Hurdles, long jump, sprinting. They soak it in. Even though they’re not doing all of it, they’re absorbing it and feeling that they’re a part of it.”
The four teammates competed for the first time at Nottingham, and then again at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North on April 12. The coaches are already seeing improvement—on and off the track.
“It felt nerve-wracking, a little,” Acevedo said. “Before the race, I felt nervous for a little bit, and then I just chilled out and started racing. I felt good after. I felt good after I threw my shot put. I felt really ready to do it.”
Watching that growth has been “wonderful,” said Deak.
“They’re growing more than just athletically,” he said. “Their confidence is growing. They’re communicating more, socializing more, overall having fun. It’s great to see. It brings a smile to my face.”
None of the kids had competed in track before, so their very first practice focused on the basics—how the lines on the track designate lanes, what the “100” means, where their feet go when throwing shot put. Many practices end in the weight room so that the coaches can practice safe ways to lift and proper stretches with the team.
Each student is different, so the approach varies from athlete to athlete, Damiano said.
“They all have different cognitive levels,” he said. “You have to kind of teach one, and while one might understand, the other one still might not understand. You have to cater to them.”
Both team and coaches are more relaxed on the track. The students are more open when they’re outside.
“Here, you can get to know their personalities a little better,” he said. “They open up, they tell jokes, they’re running, they’re tired. They don’t really get to do any of that stuff in the class. That can relate to the classroom, because they get a better feel for you.”
“It’s completely different but it’s also similar because in the classroom, they’re in a very restricted environment, learning math, whatever,” he said. “Out here, it’s more fluid, and they can learn on their levels. For example, I’m not going to have them run four miles. We just take it step by step out here. Their confidence out here, what we try to build up, carries over in the classroom. Building them up here and in the classroom just comes together. It’s a great process.”
The improvement has been vast. Deak said all four team members set personal records in each event the competed in at their first meet, and the confidence they’ve gained is obvious in all facets of the students’ lives. Deak has noticed that they’re more focused, more likely to participate in class and trying harder and harder in school and on the track. Loving, who said she prefers shot put because it’s “fun,” said she felt good running at practice and was even happier during the actual race.
Hall joined the team because both of her parents were athletes in high school. A big football and basketball fan—Hall especially likes to watch the Golden State Warriors and Chicago Bulls—she wanted to try out a sport herself. She said she likes the stress release that shot put brings.
Hall also appreciates the camaraderie being on the team and spending time with other varsity athletes brings.
“We’re supporting our team and having good Cardinal spirit,” she said. “As I always say, we’re Cardinals, we fly together and we stick together. They go down, we go down, we rise each other up.”
The coaches have seen that kind of support from both their fellow Lawrence teammates and opposing teams and coaches.
“I thought it was going to be us isolated having to do our own thing, but they were welcoming us, making sure our names were first, they kept thanking us,” Damiano said.
“Even the head coach here, he has a lot of kids. A lot of responsibility. But he’s taking us in and making us feel like a part of the team, and I think that’s what shocked me a little bit. I thought we were going to be a little bit more isolated. They’re totally enmeshed with the regular team.”
Velasco likes to throw, and said he felt “awesome” after the first meet. He was excited to hear how loud the crowd was when he and Acevedo ran. Acevedo prefers running to throwing shot put, but he has steadily improved at both. He likes bringing up his speed and said the more he runs, the more confident he feels.
“If I run more, I feel like I get more energy, and I get more strength,” Acevedo said. “I get more power to run more.”
Damiano often sees Acevedo in the hallway between classes high-fiving other track team members and telling school staff about upcoming meets. And lots of others share his enthusiasm. The Lawrence contingent—parents, family members, teachers, staff members—has been strong at each meet.
As the season goes on, the team and coaches would like to keep throwing farther and running faster. Eventually, Deak and Damiano hope to see the unified program extend to the winter track season, and maybe other sports. The exposure to different types of rules and directions, as well as learning the specifics of new sports, is invaluable, Damiano said.
“It’s not just about being on a team,” Deak said. “It’s about being part of the community and part of the school. It’s all very welcoming. They really are starting to get a sense of that.”