FORTVILLE — Nicholas Swallers threw his arms in the air as he made his way around the track.
Finally, it was time.
The Mt. Vernon Middle School student had been looking forward to participating in track events all day. As 1 p.m. grew closer, Nicholas could hardly sit still, his mom said.
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He joined some 200 Mt. Vernon School Corp. students who came together this week for track-and-field events promoting inclusiveness, where taking home top honors mattered less than encouraging athletes of all abilities.
This year, Mt. Vernon joined Unified Champion Schools, a Special Olympics program that encourages schools to be inclusive, planning programs and events that join students enrolled in special education classes and their peers enrolled in general education programs.
Just 32 Indiana school districts participate in the program.
Mt. Vernon hosted three field days for preschool, elementary and middle schoolers, partnering special education students with their peers to compete in events including the standing long jump, 50-meter run and wheelchair races.
The field days hosted this week as part of the program welcomed all students, regardless of their athletic, intellectual and physical abilities and gave students with disabilities a chance to participate in school events that aren’t always open to them, organizers said.
Some raced to the finish line, while others walked hand in hand with classmates, stepping gingerly toward the end of the course. But for each and every one came applause.
Middle school students competed in events for first-, second- and third-place ribbons, while elementary and preschool students played for fun.
The middle school events focused on track events, and at the elementary level, the event took on a traditional field day feel, with students having a choice to participate in a range of activities, including balance beam walks, tunnel races and parachute games.
The day started with an opening ceremony — much like the Olympics — with Superintendent Shane Robbins carrying a torch as students waving tiny American flags took a lap around the middle school track. As they walked, their names echoed from the press box.
They stood for the National Anthem, and students recited the Unified Champions Oath: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
Juanita Swallers, Nicholas’ mom, watched from the stands as he took to the field, inhibitions to the wind.
A field day is right up Nicholas’ alley, she said. He already participates in Special Olympics but doesn’t often get the chance to compete among his peers without disabilities.
The middle school student council helped put on the program, setting up events, helping to declare winners and cheering on participants.
Kenzie Alka, an eighth-grade student council member, said she appreciated that the first-time event brought everyone in her school together. Even if students didn’t participate in the events, they hollered encouragement to others or helped their peers with disabilities.
As each event ended, winners were announced and presented ribbons. They were squeals, high-fives and hugs.
Lindsay Tomamichel, assistant director of special education, who helped plan the events, said the field days were a blast for students and their teachers.
As the program grows, she hopes it becomes more popular.
“It’s been a really good time,” she said.
Sixth-grader Rachel Lorsung signed up to participate in the event because she wanted to cheer on her peers with special educational needs.
Everyone should be able to compete in events at school and earn prizes, she said.
“People with disabilities don’t get the opportunity to compete often,” Rachel said. “They get a day to feel accomplished… We’re going to celebrate with them.”