Anchorage — With a smile and demeanor that fits his name, Sunshine Hootch made an impact Thursday in his high school track and field debut at the Cook Inlet Conference championships.
A 19-year-old special education student at East High, Hootch helped usher in a new era for Special Olympics athletes. Instead of competing in a meet created specifically for them, Hootch and four others were the first Special Olympic athletes to compete in a CIC championship event.
Hootch competed in the unified long jump, which paired a Special Olympics athlete with a general education student, with their combined efforts deciding the competition. Hootch was long on enthusiasm if not off the board, with his best jump measuring 5 feet, 9.75 inches.
It was, to tweak a phrase, one small leap for Hootch and one giant step for athletes like him.
"This is the first time for full inclusion, where they are competing within a high school competition that already exists," said Sarah Arts, director of sports and programs for Special Olympics Alaska. "It helps tremendously because of the opportunity to interact with peers through sports. It's a vehicle for inclusion, for them to form relationships with regular-ed students. Those regular-ed students are their future employers, their future teachers."
Hootch, a fan of the Alaska Aces and TV meteorologist Jackie Purcell, said he was nervous before Thursday's competition. It didn't show.
On each of his four attempts, he grinned widely as he ran toward the jumping pit and grinned widely upon landing, even when officials yelled "scratch" after his third jump. He was so determined not to scratch again, his fourth and final attempt was nearly a standing broad jump.
Offering support, coaching and conversation was Hootch's unified partner, East High senior Abby Schneck. She and Hootch spent time before their competition practicing on the Dimond High football field, with Schneck helping Hootch hit his mark on their makeshift runway.
"How long have we been doing this Sunshine? Four years?" Schneck said.
Schneck and Hootch met through East High's Partners Club, which pairs special-needs students with those from the general student population for athletic competition. Schneck joined the club her freshman year because she knew someone else who was a member, and it changed her life. She intends to earn a masters degree in special education.
"Maybe I've only seen the good side of it," she said. "They become more talkative -- they get used to talking to other people -- and it's just kinda awesome to see them learn."
Together Schneck and Hootch have competed in alpine skiing, snowboarding, bowling, floor hockey, bowling and track, and Hootch isn't the only one who has grown from the experience. Not only has Schneck decided what she wants to do with her life, she has done some pretty awesome learning herself.
"You learn your limits," she said. "You learn what you need to work on, like patience."
Because they are integrated into the high school teams and compete under the guidance of the Alaska School Activities Association, the special-needs students must meet the same eligibility requirements as students from the general student population. They need to attend 10 practices before they can compete and they must meet academic standards.
"You know what, it's great," Dimond coach Kathleen Navarre said. "I've always been a huge supporter of main-streaming the athletes, so when we have a team meeting, I bring them into the meeting. The kids love them."
At the recent Freshman-Sophomore meet, Navarre had two of her top seniors, Armani Tufaga and Vanessa Tufaga agreed to be partner with special-needs students.
"They were excited," Navarre said. "Even though there was a little hesitation, once they got into it they realized how cool and special it is."
At the CIC meet, four events offer a unified division -- long jump, 100 meters, shot put and the 400 meter relay. The top two relay teams will qualify for next week's state track and field championships in Fairbanks, which will mark the first time special-ed students compete at an ASAA-sanctioned state championship. Special Olympics Alaska will pay their way, but the students will travel and stay with the rest of the high school team.
The goal, Arts said, is that someday the "unified" aspect is eliminated, and athletes like Hootch can join the track and field team just like regular-ed students can, and will compete in events alongside them, with no need for partners like Schneck.
Schneck and Hootch are East's only entries in this week's unified events, so they won't get a chance to qualify for the state championships since those berths go to four-person relay teams. But they have one more high school event to complete before their four-year journey ends. On Tuesday, they will both become East High graduates.
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.