The chalk drawings on the pathway leading into the stadium were the first sign that a different kind of sporting event was being held.

There were phrases of encouragement and slogans of empowerment. The most basic of which was two words: Be Brave.

For the athletes who walked down that path toward their chance to compete, those messages were inspiring.

“I was shocked,” said Daniel Boone freshman Hannah Huddleson. “It’s not something I expected. I almost cried when I saw that. It made me excited to participate here.”

Berks County’s first Unified Track and Field Meet was held at Birdsboro Thursday. Daniel Boone competed against Pottsgrove during an afternoon filled with joy and triumph.

Unified Sports is a Special Olympics program that brings together students with and without disabilities. Daniel Boone is the first Berks school to field a track team.

There were eight events ranging from sprints to mid-distance running to the shot put and long jump. Success wasn’t measured in medals, distances or times.

“It’s such a positive experience for myself and the athletes to see their accomplishments,” said Pottsgrove coach Linette Coddington. “It’s a warming feeling that I get inside. I’m very appreciative.”

Daniel Boone coach Traci Huddleson, Hannah’s mom, positioned herself behind the finish line. She was there to congratulate each runner who placed first, set a personal best or just made it to the end.

Many of the athletes thrust their arms into the air, overwhelmed by their achievements.

“We focus a lot on team building, working together, setting personal goals and overcoming challenges,” Traci Huddleson said. “Celebrating the little milestones, the little steps at a time in order to reach our long-range season goals.”

A small gathering of family, friends and fellow spring athletes were there to support the Unified teams. This was one of two meets held this season for the Blazers. Teams practice either two or three days a week for 60-75 minutes.

Ashley Herr, the Eastern Unified Champion Schools Manager at Special Olympics, said 43 schools in Bucks, Chester, Montgomery and Delaware counties have Unified sports. Twenty-four compete in track.

“It’s all about supporting each other as teammates,” Herr said. “Many of these kids would never have a chance to be on a high school sports team without Unified.”

Jason Merola, a regional sports director at Special Olympics Pennsylvania, said the hope is Daniel Boone’s participation will lead to more programs within Berks.

Word of mouth can help the idea spread.

“Everyone deserves that opportunity to compete no matter who you are,” Merola said. “It’s hard to come to this event and not have a smile on your face.”

Hannah Huddleson is an aspiring special education teacher who plays field hockey in the fall. Being a partner athlete with the Unified team provides a different athletic experience.

Huddleson threw the shot put and ran the 100 meters.

“During practices you get a good workout in and you also feel good about yourself while doing it,” Huddleson said. “Which I think is really cool.”

During the 400 meters, a one-lap sprint around the track, Boone’s Jack Callander ran out of steam on the final straightaway. He paused, tried to catch his breath and ran his hand through his hair.

The crowd’s gentle clapping steadily grew into a loud, encouraging ovation. Callander walked for about 10 meters before summoning the energy to sprint the final 30. He let out a loud scream at the finish. It was his best time.

Nothing captured the spirit of the day better than that moment.

“This is about community,” Traci Huddleson said. “It’s about bringing everyone together and making everyone feel valued, accepted and connected.”

Be Brave.

It was written in plastic cups that were wedged into the fence above the bleachers. It was spoken often during a day filled with victories.

“Knowing they were able to succeed, to reach their goal and finish,” Coddington said. “There are really no words to describe it.”

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