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Butler’s inaugural Unified track and field turned the trick this spring

Uniting a community
Members of the Butler Unified track and field team share a moment together following a league competition. The Golden Tornado finished third in the league in their inaugural season. Submitted Photo

BUTLER TWP — Some are considered athletes. Others are considered partners.

All — students with and without intellectual disabilities — wore the same colors, donned the same uniform and had the same goal: Make Butler proud.

The Golden Tornado’s inaugural Unified track and field team did exactly that by placing third out of six teams in the Unified track championship meet recently at Armstrong High School. Athletes competed in the 100 meters, 400 meters, 4x100 and 4x400 relays, shot put, mini javelin and long jump.

“My son (Tyler Rekich) was on Butler’s boys track team and competed at the 2022 state meet,” Mandy Rekich said. “I saw the Unified meet going on that weekend as well and was amazed by it.

“I wanted that for our school. I know we had been talking about it. I looked into what it would take to make it happen.”

While Rekich — a speech therapist for the Butler Area School District — was willing to be one of the coaches of a Butler Unified team, she wasn’t gaining much ground otherwise.

She said she was talking to a good friend, sixth-grade teacher Bethany Meskel, telling her the team may not get off the ground due to a lack of coaches.

Meskel immediately got on board.

“I love working with kids,” she said. “I told Mandy, I’m in. And I loved it. Coaching that team was a fantastic experience.“

Aaron Royhab, Supervisor of Special Education at Butler, became the third coach and the team was formed.

“We have the Unified bocce team and the state wants schools to do this in a couple of sports,” Royhab said. “Between the three of us, in terms of coaching track, we had no idea what we were doing.

“(Butler track coach) Mike Seybert is one of my special education teachers and he and the other track coaches worked with us on how to coach the sport. Everybody pitched in to make this work and the kids and community embraced it.”

The 14 students comprising the team — eight athletes and six partners — were Abigail Bicker, Tommi Cummings, Evan Ellis, Elijah Fennick, Aiden Rodgers-Ace, Ryan Rumbaugh, Tom Saxman, Aidan Sheakley, Alayna Bestwick, Jessica Chwalick, Ava Hindman, Krislyn Green, Autumn Gall and Paige Ponteous.

Chwalick was one of the partners. She wanted to participate on the Unified bocce team, but played girls basketball for the Golden Tornado and couldn’t do both sports at the same time.

“I’m so glad I did this,” Chwalick said. “It’s all volunteer. Everyone cheering for everyone. It was an amazing environment. From Day 1 to the last day, the friendships that were made were incredible.

“This was sports the way sports should be ... everyone totally supportive of each other.”

Jennifer Cummings is Tommi’s mother. Tommi has been a Special Olympics competitor and her mother said the Unified track team was totally different.

“She (Tommi) did the bocce, too,” Mrs. Cummings said. “She was competing with and teammates with fellow students her age. And it’s everything that comes with a school sport, being at the stadium, wearing Butler uniforms and having the opportunity to experience something with these kids outside of the classroom.

“The team would go out to dinner together after a meet, so the social aspect was enhanced as well.”

Rhonda Rodgers-Ace, mother of Unified track member Aiden Rodgers-Ace, expressed similar feelings.

“Aiden had a great time and he found new friends,” she said. “That team became like a family. You’re out there to compete and you want to win, but this isn’t about that.

“It’s about doing your best and loving it. These kids got a chance to represent their school. There’s so much pride and positivity in that ... You can’t even measure it.”

Royhab said Butler’s Unified track team will return next season.

“This could not have been more successful,” he said. “Now that people in the community have seen it, experienced it ... I expect our roster to grow to at least 20 next year, maybe more.”

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