Newton North Unified track team thrives with diversity

PHOTO: Isabella Dugan, Addy O’Connell and Julia Herzlinger chat before Unified track practice on March 27. Photo by Savannah Bond

Newton North’s Unified track team, one of two Unified teams at North, offers a supportive environment to participate in sports, regardless of athletic ability.

The team was created in 2016 and has since grown to more than twice in size, this year rostering 88 students. The goal is to bring together students with disabilities and students without disabilities to participate in various track and field events.

“A Unified team provides an opportunity for anybody at our school to participate in a team sport, regardless of their athletic ability, or their history with athletics,” said Keith Whelan, a head coach along with Selena Youngstrom. “It’s a chance for anybody to come and be part of a team.”

With its Unified program, North was one of 22 schools in Massachusetts to earn the National Banner of Recognition from the Special Olympics Committee in 2023 for “demonstrating commitment to inclusion.” 

“I think it’s great because it shows the public, it shows all of our students, it shows the community that inclusion is something that’s really important to us,” Whelan said.

An unique aspect of a Unified sport is that it brings together students who would not otherwise have a chance to interact at school. 

Junior Adi Harpaz believes that Unified track is important because it allows her to “meet different people from different grades and different classes and even school programs,” she said.  “We all have a shared place to be with and engage together.”

For students like junior Patrick Devlin, who do not have access to many opportunities for sports, Unified track gives them a chance to get exercise in a supportive environment. 

“What I like about Unified track is I like to throw shotput because it gets my arm very strong,” he said, “And what I like about it is doing 100m because I like how I run very fast.”

It also gives Devlin the opportunity to meet new friends. “A friendship I made was Harry. He’s kind of a troublemaker, but I’m getting used to it,” he said. “And he’s very cool. I can hang out all the time and walk and talk, and that’s what I do.”

The team participates in several meets against other high school Unified track teams. According to Whelan, the meets are an opportunity for athletes to demonstrate their skills while enjoying the community they create. 

“Unified sporting events are events where both sides are happy, regardless of if your team is like ‘winning’ or ‘losing,’ both sides are supporting each other,” he said. “People are cheering and rooting for your home team as well as the team that you’re competing against. So it’s really fun.”

Senior Isabella Dugan, a captain, said she loves spending time with her teammates and enjoys the inclusive environment of practices and meets. 

“I could be having the worst day possible, but after five minutes of being at practice, I’m just content and I can’t help but smile,” she added.