By Todd Travis
Developing a passion to help
For Tianna Coleman, varsity unified track coach at Center Grove High School, helping people is part of her DNA. She grew up in a small town in northeastern Indiana, but she had a BIG family. Growing up, she was one of the youngest of the grandkids. She always felt well taken care of by her older siblings and cousins. In turn, when they began to have kids of their own, she was happy to help out and take care of the great-grandchildren. “Helping others is a lifestyle for our family. It’s not a hard choice to step forward and help others. I think that quote that it takes a village is very true. With around 30 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, we were helping take care of the kids and helping each other. That really came naturally to me and helping people has continued to be a big part of my life,” Coleman explained. She went on to attend the University of Indianapolis and graduated with an elementary education degree with concentrations in special education and reading intervention.
Stepping up as varsity unified track coach
When Coleman came to Central Middle School as a sixth-grade teacher, she didn’t necessarily plan to become the coach for the varsity unified track team. She grew up participating in athletics, mainly as a soccer player, but she played a little basketball and volleyball as well. She originally began coaching basketball and volleyball before even considering track. She recalls the athletic director approaching her one day and asking her about coaching track. “He came up to me and said, ‘Hey, you look really nice today,’ and I said, ‘What do you want?’ He said, ‘I need another track coach!’ and I said, ‘I don’t know about that!’ So he came up to me a week later and asked again. I told him, ‘I haven’t decided yet!'” she recalled. “The following year, I ended up coaching all three seasons: fall, winter and spring,” she added. She started off coaching long jump for the middle school before she applied and was accepted as the varsity unified track coach.
What is unified track?
Unified track consists of students from grades nine-12. There are athletes, and there are partners who are all peers. Partners are students who are on diploma track to graduate high school, and the athletes are students with intellectual disabilities. The teams and competitions are co-ed. There are five events which include shot-put, long jump, the 400-meter dash, the 100-meter dash and the 4×100-meter relay. The kids compete against each other with one another. “When you go to these meets, no one is only cheering on their team. If someone is in last place, kids from all teams are running beside the track beside those kids cheering them on to keep running and continue participating. It’s just an overall heart-warming event every time because everyone cheers everyone on,” Coleman described.
Growing the team
Last year, only three students came out to join the team. “People were still very wary about covid, and unfortunately, with that few members, we had to cancel the season,” Coleman said. The school is also working on raising awareness about the team so that more students will be able to participate. This year, the team has 13 members and will be able to have a full season. “We’ve competed in two regular meets and a county meet. Our sectional meet will be May 23 at Bloomington High School North, in Bloomington, Ind. Within the IHSAA regulations, we compete in a sectional, a regional and a state. This is fantastic for these kids because they may not be able to compete in a different athletic avenue. This allows them to come out and be with all different types of peers. The cool thing is that the kids are almost always smiling throughout the entire meet,” Coleman noted. With these wonderful benefits, Coleman hopes to continue to grow the team in the upcoming years.
A lesson in sportsmanship
Because of the unique structure of the unified track events, there is not the cutthroat competitive feel that many other sports have. “Anyone who has been around one of these meets will see how everyone is laughing and having a good time. At the end of the meet there’s not a big, long list of who has won or lost an event. You’ll usually see kids from different teams talking to each other and making friends,” Coleman explained. “At the very end, we do a giant group photo. How many athletic events do you see that? Usually at the end you see teams parting ways and one team is typically upset they lost. At the end of this event, everyone comes to the middle of the field and they’re putting their arms around each other and having fun,” she continued. “The kids get to compete, but they also get to have fun and be silly. And no matter what, they get to be their true selves because they have people there supporting them. If they are unsure about trying something, they may have a partner come up and say, ‘Hey, you can do it!’ and before you know it, they’re out there running or jumping with no fear,” she concluded.
Coleman is encouraging team members to talk to their friends about the team and getting the word out. She hopes that the momentum they have built this year continues into the next year and more awareness can be built around the team. “Unified track goes hand in hand with Special Olympics in Johnson County and they do baseball and track in the spring. Those events are happening right now too, where people can watch or help out and volunteer,” Coleman added. Keep an eye out for your CGHS unified track team as they look to continue their growth and keep making an impact on everyone involved.