When was the last time you attended a sporting event and saw every competitor smiling? Didn’t hear any derogatory chants coming from the stands, or parents berating officials over a missed call?
Such a utopian atmosphere is hard to find — but Wednesday’s Johnson County Unified track and field meet at Indian Creek is proof that it does exist.
Scores were kept, but they were deemed so inconsequential that meet officials simply notified coaches that results and ribbons would be sent out in the morning. Teammates and opponents alike were too busy posing for pictures with one another to care all that much.
“We’re all here just to have fun,” Greenwood coach Sara Cannaday said.
Athletes and peers from Center Grove, Franklin, Greenwood and Indian Creek gathered together to compete in five different events — long jump, shot put, 100- and 400-meter runs and the 4×100 relay. Ability levels covered the full spectrum, from the effortless strides of Greenwood junior Calveon Dulaney to others that require some assistance to make it from start to finish, but you wouldn’t know the difference based on crowd response.
“It’s the same amount of cheers for the first person as the last person, which is really amazing,” Cannaday said.
Peers and athletes alike had different reasons why they came out for Unified track, but regardless of what brought them out, the experience has been a memorable one.
Franklin senior Jenna Newton began her high school career as a highly competitive runner on the girls cross country and track teams. She chose to join the Grizzly Cubs’ Unified team this spring and says that she not only values the relationships she’s built, but this season has rekindled a love for running that she’d long ago lost.
“This is probably the highlight of my high school career, actually,” Newton said. “I’m quite sad that I just decided to join my senior year. I was convinced by a friend, and (Franklin coach Haley Anderson-Roberts) has always been a big mentor of mine, so I decided to do it. It’s different for sure, going from cross country and swim to this, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The amount of inclusion, and the friendships that I’ve gained from this, it’s just invaluable.”
Greenwood senior Brock Harper, whose favorite event is the shot put, had his own reasons.
“I work out a lot and do a lot of explosive movements,” he said, “so I wanted to put that to good use.”
Even the athletes who seemed to take their races a bit more seriously understand that there’s more to it. Dulaney, now in his second season running for the Woodmen, has had the chance to make friends on other county teams, and he enjoys getting to catch up with them on evenings like this one.
He also enjoys getting to measure himself against other athletes, even if the setting is a bit more relaxed.
“If I was to get second or third, that only tells me I need to improve myself,” Dulaney said.
Does that happen very often, though?
“Not too much.”
Regardless of order of finish, everyone on the track Wednesday clearly felt like a winner. Greenwood’s Marcus Fancher, accompanied by teammate Braelyn Dotson in every event he competed in, was grinning from ear to ear as he neared the finish in the 400, fans in the bleachers loudly cheering him on every bit as loudly as if he were winning Olympic gold.
And not just the Greenwood fans, either — support was so universal that if people weren’t decked out in different schools’ gear, it would have been nearly impossible to know who was on which team.
It’s a far cry from the cut-throat environment we see at every level these days. Instead of angry parents running out of the bleachers to attack umpires or coaches, it was all love.
Perhaps there’s something to be learned from it.
“Going from something so competitive to really lax, it’s kind of a rude awakening to just how fun sports really can be,” Newton said. “I’ve gained a lot of valuable lessons from this; it’s a lot more than just competing.”