Editor’s note: On the day this edition of the Hamilton Post was going to press, we received word of a terrible tragedy involving one of the members of the Hamilton West unified track team. Sophomore Marty Barchue, who won numerous medals at the Meet of Champions, drowned in Rowan Lake after being swept up in a current. He was swimming with friends at Hamilton’s Roebling Park. We extend our heartfelt sympathy to everyone who knew and loved Barchue, and hope our story, in some small way, helps memorialize a fine young man.

Mary Ruble, Ayofumi Carter, Vernon Jean and Elvis Alicea finished second in the 4×400 relay at the Meet of Champions June 10, 2017.

Every time Ashlee Bruce wins a medal, she knows just where put it.

“They’re all hanging in my house,” said Bruce, a senior at Hamilton West High School.

Bruce hangs them on a large “A” for her name. It’s running out of room after she capped a memorable school year by helping the Hamilton West Unified Track and Field team win its first state title.

“I like just being around the kids,” Bruce said. “I enjoyed it.”

Hamilton West had contributions from all 18 athletes in the win in the state meet hosted by Northern Burlington. The school also had to clear some new space to accommodate the team trophy that they were awarded.

“They put it in the school trophy cabinet,” said Mark Harmon, another senior athlete.

The trophy is Hamilton West’s first in the Unified Division, and the memory is especially sweet for Harmon. He won’t forget the running and the winning and the celebration that followed.

“We had a lot of cake and took a lot of pictures,” Harmon said.

This is the first year that Hamilton West had a unified track and field team, part of a larger athletic program offered at the school that also includes unified soccer, basketball and softball teams. The Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools, of which Hamilton West is one, was founded nationwide in 2008 as a way to build inclusion and tolerance in schools for Special Olympic athletes who are defined as having an intellectual disability, cognitive delay or closely related developmental disability. Unified Sports joins people with and without disabilities on the same team.

According to the Special Olympics New Jersey website, it was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding. In 2014, Governor Chris Christie signed into law the New Jersey Equity in Athletics and Physical Activities Act that requires schools “to provide students with disabilities equal access to athletics, physical education and physical activities, and opportunities to participate in existing adaptive and Special Olympics Unified Sports programs.”

Erin Wolverton, the coach who oversees the Unified Sports program at Hamilton West, sees a win for her athletes regardless of where they finish or where their team finishes.

“It’s extremely exciting,” Wolverton said. “They were just happy to be out and competing. The individual medals are great, but just seeing the socialization and team bonding is nice. Track is a unique sport in that there’s a lot of down time. For us, it’s great because it allows them to create memories and gives them a chance to cheer on their teammates and then get ready for their next event. Track and field is a unique opportunity, and I’ve really enjoyed watching our athletes be a part of it. It’s great winning the title, but seeing the team bonding and those types of skills being developed is our ultimate goal.”

The offerings at Hamilton West were a big hit with Bruce, who was new to the school this year. She didn’t have the same opportunities at Nottingham High School last year, and was thrilled to be able to participate in soccer, basketball and track.

“It made the school year more fun being able to do it all,” Bruce said.

Hamilton West began partnering with the Special Olympics in 2011. When Special Olympics-sponsored Shriver Cup competitions began four years ago, Hamilton West began competing in team events like basketball and soccer. That time frame coincided with Wolverton’s arrival at the school. The Hamilton varsity girls’ basketball head coach started with the unified basketball program and has marveled at the unified program’s expansion.

“We’ve greatly grown, which is amazing,” Wolverton said. “We have a lot of sports, we have a lot of activities. We have more participation than we did four years ago to be able to cover all the sports. The biggest thing is the acceptance in the school community. I have people reach out now asking how they can help or if they can be on the team or how can they get involved. That’s kind of what we’ve been looking for.”

Hamilton West competes against other schools in soccer, basketball and track and field. They hosted Hamilton basketball and softball tournaments with strong numbers of participants in both. Hamilton West, this year, hosted the first Colonial Valley Conference tournament with five teams participating, including two from Hamilton West. They also played in the Shriver Cup at Princeton University.

‘It was nice to see how successful our athletes were in their different events.’

In the fall, they had a soccer team compete in the Shriver Cup at Mercer County Park. The unified track and field team only competed as a team in two meets, but they were big ones—the first state group meet and the Meet of Champions. Some Unified athletes are a part of the full Hamilton track and field team and competed in its regular-season team meets in a unified division event.

“We’ve always had large participation in basketball, but in track and field, we actually have members who are full members on the track and field team that also compete on our unified team depending on the meet,” Wolverton said. “They practice with our track team, everything is together. Then they have the opportunity at meets when they have the different events.”

Giving unified athletes more chances to compete is a plus for their development.

“It’s huge,” Wolverton said. “As an athlete myself, you don’t realize how much that develops your character and your personality until you’re not competing anymore. So they’re able to compete for your high school, wear your high school name, and be recognized and display their medals and hear their names on the announcements. The school community here is so supportive. That’s why it’s been so successful and why the program continues to grow.”

Track and field has grown as much as any sport. It has made a significant jump in the last two years.

“Track and field, they partnered last year with the NJSIAA,” Wolverton said. “It was the first year that NJSIAA partnered with Special Olympics. We competed at Meet of Champions in the 4×100. That was the first event that was ever sanctioned.”

Although 2017 was the first year for the Hamilton West unified track and field team, the Hornets did send athletes last year to compete in that first-ever sanctioned event. They placed fifth in the state.

Harmon, who was a part of that 4×100 relay, started playing sports for Hamilton as soon as they were offered. He also loves to play soccer, basketball and baseball. He wasn’t sure how this year’s track team would do, but the win was a pleasant surprise.

“We thought we would do better this year,” Harmon said.

This year was the first both for the West unified team and for the unified team division at the state meet. And it turns out Harmon was right.

Hamilton West had strong performances across the board in the state title win. On the girls side, Edith Barchue led a sweep of the 100 meters with Ayofumi Carter second and Destanee Giovannini third. Hamilton also swept the 200 meters with Mary Ruble first, Gloria Owusu second and Tajanae Wrenn third. Aniyah Blount-Davis was third, May Fletcher was fourth and Sianni Merrill took fifth in the 400 meters. The girls 4×100 was second and the 4×400 was third. Merrill was second in long jump. Wrenn won the shot put with Owusu third, Kelechi Odinkemere fourth and Bruce fifth.

For the boys, Vernon Jean was first and Marty Barchue second in the 100 meters. Harmon won the 200 meters with Elvis Alicea third and Javon Porter fourth. Solomon Rios placed second in the 400. The boys 4×100 won and the 4×400 was second. Adrian Triguerous took second in shot put. Barchue won the long jump.

“Hopewell Valley and West Windsor North gave us a run,” Wolverton said. “They did well. We were very strong in the short distance. Hopewell was very strong in the longer distance.

“It was nice to see how successful our athletes were in their different events. And to win the overall was great.”

Hamilton followed up its state title with more medals the following week at the Meet of Champions. The 4×100 team of Harmon, Marty Barchue, Edith Barchue and Blount-Davis won gold, while Ruble, Carter, Jean and Alicea placed second in the 4×400 relay.

Hamilton West’s athletic program has given their support and helped coach the unified athletes. Their support has created rich experiences for unified athletes and coaches.

“We have a lot of staff that helps,” Wolverton said. “There are a lot of different people for the different sports and competition. We partner with a lot of our athletic programs here. That’s been a great opportunity for the staff and students.”

The support has opened the door for Hamilton West to explore other athletic opportunities for its unified athletes.

“We’re continuing to expand,” Wolverton said. “We’re also really excited with the partnership with the state athletic association and to see where that grows and expands to. The future has a lot of good things. We don’t know exactly where that will be yet, but there’s definitely going to be more opportunities come next year.

“We want more competitions, more games with outside schools. Expanding that opportunity to play, not just the one tournament or one event here and there during the season. Having those inter-district or out of district games on a more regular basis.”

The season may have ended for the Hamilton West team, but athletes like Ashlee Bruce and Mark Harmon said the experiences were so positive that they don’t want to stop. They can continue to compete in Special Olympics, and athletes out of high school can compete at the college unified level.

“I have a break for a while,” Harmon said. “Then I’m going to sign up for the college team.”