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Sounds from a Unified track meet in Londonderry, New Hampshire

A team of high school track athletes standing in a row in purple gear reading 'Hanover'.
Jia Lan
Vermont Public
The Hanover High School Unified track team.

In the early '90s, the Special Olympics helped develop the Unified movement, which joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same sports teams.

More and more schools are starting these teams across the country. Hanover High School has had a Unified track team since 2012.

Vermont Public reporter Erica Heilman spent some time with the Hanover team at a recent meet in Londonderry, New Hampshire. This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Erica Heilman: This is the sound of the Hanover High School Unified track team at the long jump.
Hanover kids: Go Salem High School! Go Salem go!

Erica Heilman: One thing I love about a Unified track meet: There is a lot of equal opportunity cheering.

Here is athlete and also team partner, Xan Sharlet:

Xan Sharlet: I would not do sports. This has not changed my mind about sports at all. But I think it's nice to just have like a baseline of belonging, like, ‘Oh, this is my team.’ And I think like a lot of adolescence, it's like a lot of work to go and find places where you can be —

Erica Heilman: Where you can be with a group?

Xan Sharlet: Yeah, where you can be with a group and where you'll be tolerated and acknowledged. And like, that’s not something I find so much in high school. So, here, I find like, everybody is just de facto tolerated, but also kind of appreciated.

It's a good place to work on, like, personal goals for what kind of person you want to be. Because like, I want to be a warmer person. And so this is easy, because like, a lot of my teammates are really warm and kind of energetic people. And so I can kind of like, look up to them.

High school girl running on a track, smiling in the sun
Jia Lan
Vermont Public
Xan Sharlet runs during the meet.

Xan Sharlet: You got this Dev! Dev is really good at the long jump.

Erica Heilman: This is team captain Steven Lan.

Steven Lan: Do you see the person I was talking with? The official?

Xan Sharlet: Yeah.

Steven Lan: She has a starting pistol.

Xan Sharlet: Yeah.

Erica Heilman: Why is that something you want to talk about?

Steven Lan: It’s just to get everyone started.

Erica Heilman: Right, but is that something we should worry about?

Steven Lan: No. I was just telling Xan.

Xan Sharlet: Steven knows that I'm kind of sensitive to noise.

Erica Heilman: How is this track team different? Does Hanover have two track teams?

Steven Lan: Yes.

Erica Heilman: What's the difference between this track team and that track team?

Steven Lan: You automatically make varsity for this one.

High school track athlete preparing for the long throw
Jia Lan
Vermont Public
Ellie Havrda prepares to throw a shot put.

Erica Heilman: This is high school senior Ellie Havrda.

Why do you do it?

Ellie Havrda: Well, I do it because it's really fun. And I love being around people. I love running, jumping, throwing … At first I didn’t have any experience but now I have. Also I do it because I want to make a new group of friends.

Erica Heilman: Are you in school?

Ellie Havrda: Yes, I am in school. I am a senior. And I graduate this year.

Erica Heilman: How do you feel about that?

Ellie Havrda: I feel really excited. I feel like I conquered every class at my school. And I like just being around friends and making sure my classes are straight A's. And if flunk it’s OK. I pick myself up and just dust myself off.

Dev Sathe: (Speaking in Hindi)

It’s in a movie 3 Idiots. I've watched that.

Erica Heilman: Another thing to love about a Unified track meet: The conversation between events is generally more surprising than at most track meets.

Xan Sharlet: Dev’s quoting a movie in Hindi, but he won’t translate it for us.

Erica Heilman: How do you describe your brain?

Xan Sharlet: Um, I think I have a lot more thoughts than a lot of people, because of like, ADHD and autism. Like, I can't sort through my thoughts because it's just constant. And so I like being in Unified because I think people express themselves … like you don't have to kind of like, sort through, "Which thoughts do I share? What thoughts do I not share?" Because like, it's a lot more lenient in terms of like, a social environment than a lot of high school is. Because it's like, no one's monitoring you for like, you know, the wrong performance, like the wrong laugh. Because everyone is still focused on whoever's running. And so like, when you're on the ground and you're watching someone run, your job is to cheer that person on. When you're running, your job is to run. And so it's straightforward. Hi Dev!

Dev Sathe: Hi Xan.

Erica Heilman: OK, Bennet.

Bennet Palmer: Yes.

Erica Heilman: What are we doing?

Bennet Palmer: We are walking the 200.

Erica Heilman: Xan was partnering with Bennet Palmer while he walked the 200, and I went along. It's really pleasant walking the 200. There's more time for conversation.

What do you guys talk about on these walks together?

Bennet Palmer: Um, really just how's our day been and stuff. I don't really know Xan that well.

Xan Sharlet: Yeah.

Erica Heilman: So you don't know each other that well?

Bennet Palmer: Not really.

Erica Heilman: So, is it awkward?

Bennet Palmer: Oh, I mean, I generally don't mind meeting new people. I mean, I guess as long as they're nice. You know, I'm okay with that.

Xan Sharlet: Yeah, some of our teammates are more like, exuberant and a little loud, but Bennet’s very peaceful, so I can appreciate that. I don't really have a sense of awkwardness.

Erica Heilman: You are a peaceful dude.

Bennet Palmer: Thank you.

Erica Heilman: Again, here's Ellie.

What's the scariest thing about life?

Ellie Havrda: Well, not being included is a little scary for me. Like not being part of something. Like if I'm in a group and people start to shadow me out — like, I can't get a word out sometimes. But when I'm around people I know and trust and love, they let me talk for once. Which is good.

Group of kids in track suits sitting on a high jump back outside in the sun, talking
Jia Lan
Vermont Public
Members of the Hanover High School Unified track team.

Erica Heilman: How does it feel physically different to be in this environment than in a strictly neurotypical environment?

Xan Sharlet: Outside of track, like, I know a few kids who will consistently say hi to me. And then I know the people from the neurodiversity club that I'm a part of. But otherwise, like, the teachers are very friendly. And I believe that kids can be friendly to each other.

But here it's like, I know where all my teammates are, and like, I notice if someone's not there, and like, I think it's more comfortable to be in an environment where other people are aware that you're there. Like I've never felt like part of a team before, but this is like, the only time I felt like, "I'm part of this thing."

Erica Heilman: How did it go?

Ellie Havrda: Good.

Erica Heilman: What was your time?

Ellie Havrda: I don’t know. They couldn’t tell me.

Erica Heilman: What a beautiful day.

Ellie Havrda: I just love being outside in the sun.

 Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.