FHS Unified Track Program Brings General, Special Ed Students Together For One Goal: Winning

FHS Unified Track shot putter Joe Wood prepares to launch during the May 18 meet.

Joe Wood strode to the throwing circle with a determined look on his face, cradling the 6-pound shot put in his right hand.

With his left foot firmly braced against the stop board, Joe brought the silver ball up to level with his right ear, then stuck his left arm out for counterbalance.

After a few moments of concentration and clearing his mind, Joe let loose with the shot. The throw, one of four he’d make that day, was good for more than 14 feet.

Wood walked up to the landing area to retrieve his shot, bathed by applause and shouts of encouragement from his teammates, and members of the visiting team.

“Show those muscles, Joe!” someone yelled.

Wood, a senior, is one of 12 student athletes who are members of Franklin High School’s unified track and field team. The team brings together athletes from the school’s general and special education populations for one goal, according to head coach Lauren Francis.

“We’re working toward the state championship meet, which is June 12,” she said.

This day, May 18, the team was involved in a tri-meet with teams from West Morris Central and Mendham high schools.

Francis, who is in her third year as coach of the unified team, said the program has been growing larger every season.

“It’s just a really amazing program,” she said. “Each year it gets bigger and better. We’re just really excited to see it get bigger every year.”

She said the program teaches the athletes the meaning of teamwork and relying on and supporting each other.

The events unified athletes compete in include the 100-, 200- and 400-meter runs, the 4×100 meter and 4×400 meter relays, the long jump and the shot put.

The statewide unified sports program is the product of a partnership between the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association and Special Olympics New Jersey. The program began in 2016.

Student athletes of all abilities are welcome on the FHS team, which does not hold tryouts, Francis said.

“We take students of all abilities who just want to be on the team, who want to help, be a part of it,” she said. “We have students from all different kinds of sports who want to learn a little bit about track and field.”

Track is only one of several sports in which Joe participates, he said. He said he’s also involved in unified cheer and bowling.

On teh track team, in addition to the shot put, Joe runs the 100 meter race, he said.

Joe’s mother, Kim, said she thinks the unified program has helped her son.

“I think it’s great,” she said. “He’s socializing with other kids. He feels welcomed and everything.”

Kim Wood said her son got involved with the track team three years ago because “he just saw it and wanted to try it out.”

“We saw it and we figured why not have the opportunity,” she said.

Joe and his fellow seniors were honored May 18 after the meet at the annual Seniors Night celebration.

Along with Joe Wood, unified track seniors include Jennifer Ayube, Karalyn Cornell, Declan Gordon, Quincy Nelson, Quinton Nelson, Jody Anne Popa Matos, Serena Rose, and Kiara Seaman.

Here are some scenes from the day:

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