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Lee schools gather for Unified Track meet

By Staff | May 1, 2019

The Lehigh Senior High School unified athletes show their spirit during the Unified Track Event at North Fort Myers High School on Friday. CHUCK BALLARO

Eight Lee County high schools with some 170 athletes gathered at North Fort Myers High School on Friday for a competition featuring students with special needs alongside their more able-bodied partners.

It was the inaugural Unified Track Event, which was put on by the Lee County Parks & Recreation Special Olympics Program and the School District of Lee County.

Unified Sports provide opportunities for students with and without disabilities to participate in athletic completion together. The special needs individuals, (athletes) and the nondisabled individuals (partners) participate together on a team that competes against other high school teams.

The teams competed in the boys and girls shotput and long jump for the field events, while on the track they joined together for the coed 4×100 and 4×200 relays.

The Special Olympians also ran in the 100 meters in the boys and girls division as well as the wheelchair division, where they got some help, if they chose.

Don Payne, who runs the Special Olympics for Lee County Parks & Rec, said this became an offshoot following a very successful Unified basketball tournament.

“It’s competitive. We have trophies for the top three teams. The schools take it very seriously like they would for any sport,” Payne said. “We want it to be competitive and let our special needs students have an opportunity to work together and compete together.”

Cullen O’Brien, who coaches track at North, was a coach for the Unified Track. He said the Red Knights were doing great.

“Christian Diggs has worked his whole life on the shotput. This gives him an opportunity to compete and that’s incredible for him,” O’Brien said. “A lot of the kids decided at the spur of the moment to get out and do their best.”

All that work paid off for North, as it pretty much cleaned up, winning all but one event. That included Diggs, who won his event.

That pleased his mother, Debbie Diggs, who is also principal at North, and added it was great her school got to serve as host for the inaugural event.

“We were honored to host and that eight Lee County schools participated. The athletes and the partners worked really hard and their teamwork was enlightening to see,” Diggs said. “I hope we can do this in the future.”

Alex Freeland, a partner from Mariner, said he thought being with the kids and interacting with them would be good for them and the community.

“We did well, although I don’t think it matters if we won or lost. It was a fun day for us,” Freeland said. “An event like this brings everyone closer and its great for the community.”

David Tippins, also of Mariner, was one of the athletes, participating in the long jump.

“I didn’t do bad. I think I would like the shotput because I think I can throw it farther. I did basketball but this is the first time I’ve done track,” Tippins said. “This event helps bring us closer to other people.”

North Fort Myers, Estero, Riverdale, Cypress Lake, Lehigh, Mariner, Ida Baker and Fort Myers participated.