HAMILTON — Special Olympics always brings people together.
Yet the new Unified Track effort is developing deeper friendships and experiences for athletes, coaches and teammates.
At schools across Montana -- and now in Hamilton -- Unified Track is leaving its mark, pairing Special Olympics athletes with their peers in regular meets.
Coach Jen Carmody says it's been amazing to watch.
"They have a bond that has always been good in the last three years as we've been starting unified schools and this year as they started running together and passing the baton and cheering on the track, they have become so tight.”
That doesn't mean it's easy.
“It was hard. Like last track meet I almost tripped. But at least I did not fall down," athlete and Hamilton High School senior Claire Carmody said with a laugh.
“So I've kind of done track on and off, but I haven't always loved it," explained senior Megan Yockey. "But now I really like doing Unified Track, 'cause I think Claire and I kind of bond over that. Like we don't super love running but we love running together.”
Carmody agrees with a smile, "we really like each other. Me and her like sisters. We get along really well.”
Tabatha Townsend is just a freshman athlete, but she's already having the time of her life.
“I just love it because I get to be with all of my friends. And I’m just really excited about this year because I have my friend Claire over there. I just enjoy being with my friend Maddy here,” placing her arm around her teammate, Madison Ward.
This year the girls are participating in long jump and running, which Tabatha likes because of her cheering section, "because it’s my favorite. And because of the boys of course!”
“Do they applaud for you when you run fast? Do you like hearing from the rest of your team? Is that fun?" we asked. "Yes," she said with a shy giggle.
“I love like our bond," Madison said. "Our bond has definitely strengthened over the past couple weeks and they're so funny and so much fun to run with and we always have fun. Always find something positive to talk about."
“It really does offer inclusion and so the whole track team emerges and embraces them too," Coach Carmody notes, saying it's a different experience than the Special Olympics' regular games.
Brynnli Poulsen, one of the best runners in the region, says it's great to slow down a little and help Tabatha and Claire accomplish their goals.
“It takes a lot of the stress out of it too and just makes track this thing that do because I enjoy it. And the girls are so much fun to be around. So that just makes it that much better. Warming up with them, it was my favorite part of the day by far.”
“Wins aren’t what we’re looking for. It's improvement whether you improve by 1 inch or one second, it's all about improvement," Hamilton High School Head Track Coach John Stromberg explained. "And our Unified team has actually inspired kids to work as hard as they’re working.”
Hamilton High Athletic Director Travis Blome is already working to recruit more participants for next year.
“It's something that we're really proud of. And I'm really proud of our entire school, but mainly the girls that are involved with the team.”
It's what changes deep down inside that matters the most. "It feels on the inside as if I could just cry," Tabatha said.
When asked if she wants to cry because she's so happy, Tabitha answered "yes," Tabatha says with emotion in her voice.
With graduation just a few weeks away there’s going to be some tears when these teammates separate. But what they’ve started is a legacy for other athletes to follow.
“I'm probably going to cry after graduation 'cause I don't want to leave my friends," Claire said, with graduation just weeks away for her Senior class. "And I'll make sure that I will not get rid of my friends and FaceTime them or text them. I don't want to leave them!”
"Yeah, it's a bummer that it's our senior year and we only get to do Unified Track once," Yockey says wistfully. "But I'm glad that other people will be able to do it once we're gone.”
Ward is hopeful more athletes will sign up for the coming seasons.
“I think it would be super fun to keep doing this. It’s so much fun. And I definitely look forward to it next year. And although they’ll be very missed when they leave I bet we can find some good runners.”
“At least other people can have a chance to understand Special Olympics and Unified Track," Claire said.
Yockey actually made Unified Track her senior project this year, and Blome is hoping to expand the program down into the middle schools in the near future.