Field of Champions
Writer // Rebecca Wood Photography // JJ Kaplan
On a crisp spring afternoon, the Zionsville High School (ZHS) track is buzzing with activity. Students stretch in the grassy infield while runners dash around the track. One athlete sprints down the runway towards the long jump pit.
ZHS student Michael Daily balances a shot put under his jaw. One arm is extended into the air, the other readies for a throw. With bent knees, he rocks back and forth while eying his target surface outside of the ring.
Before releasing the ball, Daily grins and halts his activity.
“I’m always happy,” he announces while cradling the metal ball. “Would you like to meet my friends?”
Daily, a ZHS student with an intellectual disability, motions toward the others milling around the ring. Three girls smile while he makes introductions. Within minutes, Daily has returned to his athletic endeavors with his friends spurring him along.
The track is filled with a variety of athletes. Students with and without intellectual disabilities train alongside each other. Any physical, intellectual or emotional differences appear to be meaningless to these athletes. A communal sense of camaraderie and jubilation radiates from this crew.
Everyone in the group is a member of the ZHS Unified Track team. The team consists of athletes with and without intellectual disabilities. Practices are conducted in the same fashion as the varsity and junior varsity track team. Athletes work on proper techniques and increasing speed. Students strive to grow as runners and field competitors, but more than athletic skills are gained from being part of the team.
Head Coach Spencer Cassin, a ZHS essential skills teacher, calls himself a “sports guy” with a passion for coaching. His coaching resume reads long, but it is this particular team that holds Coach Cassin’s affection.
Cassin was inspired to teach and coach students with intellectual disabilities after watching a family member face similar challenges at school and in social situations. Many of Cassin’s students display a love of sports and a desire to be part of a team.
“These students are not able to be on a regular track team,” asserts Cassin. “On the Unified Track team, they feel included and like they are part of something.”
The IHSAA and Special Olympics joined forces to create the Unified Sports program within Indiana. Hoosier schools host over 160 Unified Sports clubs. Currently, ZHS offers two Unified Sports teams: flag football and track. At Unified Track meets, athletes may compete in six events, including relays, sprints, shot put and long jump.
Three years ago, ZHS teachers were instrumental in bringing the Unified Track team to the school. Twenty students filled the inaugural team roster. This season, over 60 students have registered for the team, including 18 athletes with intellectual disabilities.
Students lead the team and run practices while Coach Cassin oversees activities. Participants are divided into three categories. The athletes consist of the students with intellectual disabilities. Partner athletes and student coaches – students without intellectual disabilities – train, cheer and compete alongside the athletes.
Kerry Fletcher, a parent to two Unified Track athletes with developmental and intellectual disabilities, gushes about the program.
“It’s fellowship for them,” Fletcher comments. “My children have always competed in typical sports, but in high school, it became more intense. These students [with intellectual disabilities] have few opportunities to build relationships.”
Bailey Seiler, a ZHS sophomore and student-athlete, cheers along Kerry’s daughter Lindsey in practices. Seiler says her job is to encourage Lindsey and other athletes on the field.
“Sometimes they get down,” remarks Seiler. “We try to keep their spirits up and keep them going. Building relationships is fun; they make everyone happy.”
Cassin considers the friendships created over the course of practices and competitions as invaluable to the students.
“When the students with intellectual disabilities see their friends in the hall, they get high-fives and knuckles,” Cassin asserts. “They see that their friendships don’t stop at the end of the school day.”
Cassin prepares for every challenge and experience within a practice. He refers to himself as the “bag guy.” To practices and competitions, he brings a bag filled with supportive tools: social storybooks, weighted blankets and body sock sensory sacks. To encourage athletes on the right course and moving forward, Cassin uses flags, cones and pictures attached to his back.
Fletcher admits her competitive side emerges when she watches her children race around the track.
“I get a little competitive, but I realized it’s more than winning,” Fletcher acknowledges. “The winning doesn’t matter; it is the finishing. Everyone is cheering. Nothing is impossible. They can do anything.”
Cassin beams when he talks about the finish line too. “My motto is ‘small victories are the biggest victories.’”
For these athletes and team, the journey to the finish line is a big victory worth celebrating – together.