Try as he might, Lexington High Student Vaj James Runkle could not stop smiling as he and his teammates came to the stage one by one to receive their athletic letters. When it was his turn, Runkle sprinted forward, beaming with pride, toward Principal Melissa C. Rawl.
Runkle’s exuberance mirrored that of other students from Lexington, River Bluff and White Knoll high schools as they gathered in the Lexington One Performing Arts Center to be honored as the first students in the state to receive their schools’ athletic letters for participation in Special Olympics Unified Sports training. The schools presented athletic letters to 45 athletes and their Unified Sports partners as parents, friends and teachers cheered.
“It made me proud,” WKHS Student Khalil Michael McCray said. “It’s fun to be part of a team, to help the team and to make new friends.”
“We’re all part of a team,” added Runkle, who plays basketball and participates in track and shot put. “It makes me feel good to compete.”
Through Unified Sports, Special Olympics athletes and their partners compete together in sports such as basketball, soccer, golf, softball and tennis.
Before Unified Sports, LHS Student Daniel Brian Currence wasn’t able to participate in physical education. On Wednesday, he not only received his athletic letter, but he got a surprise prom invitation from his good friend, LHS Freshman Taylor Nicole Miles. Currence reflects, “Unified Sports has made a wonderful difference in my life.”
“To watch the excitement on the athletes’ faces as they accepted their letters gave a feeling of pure equality,” WKHS Special Education Teacher Jonny R. Thompson said. “Watching parents with tears in their eyes… made the day well worth the commitment.”
Unified Sports impacts students volunteering as partners, too. Several volunteers have competed alongside the same athlete since middle school, while others, as a result of this experience, will pursue careers in special education after graduation. LHS Senior Benjamin Joel Sauls adds, “I’ve gained some of my strongest friendships through Unified Sports.”
LHS capped the celebration by hosting a huge pep rally for the athletes and their families, complete with a pep band and cheerleaders from all three high schools. ESPN SportsCenter Anchor Kevin Negandhi made a special guest appearance and praised the athletes for their determination, saying, “You are an example of the power and potential of sport.”
In addition to the individual athlete recognition, Unified Sports named Lexington and River Bluff high schools Unified Champion Banner Schools for their efforts to provide inclusive sports and activities for students with and without disabilities.