As Valparaiso's unified track team practiced Wednesday afternoon, coach David Prokop talked proudly about the Vikings' state-fastest 400-meter relay.
"Who crosses the finish line?" he asked anchor man Jeremiah Leftridge.
"Us," Leftridge said.
He may not have known it, but in one simple word, Leftridge defined the essence of unified track, a sport that brings people together and offers a much-needed breath of fresh air at a time of great division in our country.
"Do we want to be competitive? Absolutely," Prokop said. "But the goal is to be unified. Everybody is out here for the same exact reasons."
Unified track is a collaborative effort of the Indiana High School Athletic Association and Special Olympics Indiana that began in 2014 and allows students with and without intellectual disabilities to team up in an IHSAA-sanctioned activity.
"This is the last time I'll get to hang out with (my brother) like this," Jamie Leftridge said of Jeremiah, a sophomore.
Jamie Leftridge, a senior, ran track previously and could have been a key contributor this season, but opted to join his brother on the unified team instead.
"There were definitely second thoughts," Jamie Leftridge said. "I'm a senior, football training made me faster and stronger, maybe I could've made it to the big stage. It's mixed emotions. (Jeremiah) could have run regular track, but he wanted it to be not as intense and this is really laid back. It's fun hanging out with my friends. I love competing and this is the same thing — a team effort."
The Leftridges are now bookends on the 400 relay, Jamie starting it and Jeremiah finishing it.
"I always take orders from him," Jeremiah said as his brother smiled. "He tells me when to stop."
Prokop, a special education teacher, started the program last year at the encouragement of former principal Reid Amones. He initially drew just four kids, but he tasked those four with telling friends and numbers grew to 30.
This season, he made a concerted effort to pull in athletes who weren't involved in a spring sport, and drew several football players and a basketball player. The current roster stands at 55 with a mix of general education and special needs students.
"We knew we wanted it to be bigger," said Prokop, who is helped in the volunteer endeavor by Mike Zmija, Sarah Albers and Madison Olsen. "It's cool to have the athletes out here. It brings them all together."
Valpo is among 11 Northwest Indiana high schools — Crown Point, West Side, Griffith, Hobart, Kankakee Valley, Lake Central, LaPorte, Merrillville, Michigan City and Munster — and about 90 across the state that offer unified track.
Athletes participate in the 100- and 400-meter dashes, the boys 400 relay, the girls 400 relay, shot put and long jump. Regular-season meets are not scored, but performances are measured so athletes can be grouped in the sectional with others at a similar level, whether there is a disability or not. Every running heat and field event flight is scored out to eighth place so everyone has an opportunity to contribute to the team's success. There are no individual awards as places are used solely to determine team points.
"You have kids who can only walk the 100 meters — that's the best they can do — and they get a standing ovation," Prokop said. "That's what it's all about."
Prokop shared the story of sophomore Leo Davison, a 400 runner whose involvement in unified track has built a social bridge for him.
"He had a really tough transition. Being a freshman is hard on anybody," Prokop said. "He loved it. You could see the inclusion. Now you see him at lunch, everybody knows who he is."
Junior sprinter Haley Taylor enjoys the running — she knocked 2 whole seconds off her 100 time in the sectional — but loves the rewards, whether it's Gatorade, Panera, pizza or candy.
"I'm picking up speed, going faster, keeping my eyes on the lane," Taylor said. "My family's cheering me on, 'Go, go, go! Come on, girl! You can do it!' I get tired and thirsty, but I want to go faster, so I can't stop."
Valpo placed second to Merrillville in the Griffith Sectional and advanced to Saturday's Kokomo Regional along with the Pirates and the Panthers.
No matter where anybody finishes, the interaction and warm feelings shared mean more than any ribbon or trophy.
"I like holding the (Valpo) flag," Devinn Johnson said. "I talked to Kankakee Valley, Lake Central, Griffith Panthers. I was dancing with Kankakee Valley."