Special Olympics delivers cheers with challenges


For the Gazette

Published: 06-02-2017 12:37 AM

NORTHAMPTON — A tall, lanky 15-year-old approaches a hurdle made of rope strung between plastic cones.

An athlete at a Special Olympics track and field event, he is guided by an aide to step over one hurdle after another.

Cheers of “We got it!” and “Yes!” come from watching teachers, peers and parents, as the boy, Aaron “AJ” Strack, starts toward the final hurdles. His foot catches on one, but the crowd only gets louder. He steps over the last hurdle, and then comes what Gino Roman, Strack’s teacher at Northampton High School, said is Strack’s favorite part: the applause.

“Take a bow, AJ!” someone shouts. He smiles and bends forward as the crowd claps.

Strack and nearly 100 other students from area schools enjoyed cheers and encouragement Thursday as they participated in track and field events at Northampton High School for the Special Olympics Massachusetts School Day Games.

“It’s a chance to get out and show what they can do,” Roman said. “They get to be cheered — who doesn’t want to be cheered?”

Students ranging from elementary to high-school age rotated through stations of long jump, beanbag toss, sprints, hurdles and other events.

Hannah Hunting came from Swift River School in New Salem, Massachusetts, to support her son, Lucas Hunting, 7, who she said can be shy around new things. It was his first time participating in a Special Olympics event.

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By the time his school was at the long jump station, several rotations into the morning, Lucas Hunting was running, jumping and talking with his peers on his own, as his mom stood back to watch.

“He’s starting to come out of his shell,” she said.

Jon Scully, sports manager for Special Olympics Massachusetts, helped organize the event. He said he believes sports are important for children, and he said the Special Olympics hopes to highlight ability over disability.

“I think sports are a great teacher,” Scully said. “Being part of a team, dealing with change and adversity — I think there are a lot of life lessons learned through sports.”

Events were modified at the event so that more students could be included. Students in wheelchairs could throw an object into the pit for their long jump, and parents could do hurdles alongside their kids, if they were nervous.

Craig Murdoch, physical education teacher at Bridge Street School and Jackson Street School, has helped organize the track and field Special Olympics event for years. He said he values the integration of special education students with the broader NHS community, which supplies volunteers.

He also enjoys seeing his former students at the event and watching their social and athletic development.

NHS student Ana Tyson, 18, has been coming to the event for a few years, and she said she most enjoys the long jump. Though she enjoys seeing how far she can jump, she said she enjoys cheering for her peers just as much.

“I feel very included, happy and excited,” she said. “I feel like I belong here.”