Making history at the Texas high school track & field championships

By Katie Branham | May 15, 2014, 6:16 p.m. (ET)

 A dozen student athletes made history as they competed in the first Texas state meet to offer events for athletes with disabilities.

Watching video, working on their technique and spending hours on the track, Abby Dunkin and Dustin Strelsky trained for months to reach their ultimate goal: the Texas track and field state championships.

But for Dunkin and Strelsky, they were competing for more than state titles, they were also paving the way for thousands of athletes who would follow in their footsteps.

The University Interscholastic League of Texas voted in the fall of 2013 to add a wheelchair division to the track and field state championships. Beginning this year student athletes with disabilities are able compete in the 100 and 200-meter races and the shot put to represent their high schools at the state meet.

Wendy Gumbert, who serves as the regional Paralympic coordinator for Texas, traveled to coaching clinics throughout the state and helped to educate coaches on the addition of adaptive events.

“I would go to a practice and the coaches would tell me that they didn’t know what to do with these athletes in wheelchairs,” Gumbert said. “I would ask them what their sprinters were doing for practice and tell them to do that, and they would go, ‘oh, it’s that easy.’”

For Dunkin at Canyon High School in New Braunfels, Texas, the addition of the wheelchair events gave her the chance to rediscover the athlete that she had always been.

 Abby Dunkin celebrates her three gold medals with her coaches from Canyon High School

Dunkin is a second degree black belt in Tang Soo Do and was a member of her school’s varsity basketball team for her freshman and sophomore year. But midway through her junior year complications from a rare nervous system disorder left her unable to walk and needing to use a wheelchair on a daily basis.

“When I went into my wheelchair, I thought I couldn’t be the athlete that I was,” Dunkin said. “I felt like I lost my identity because of that, but this experience has changed my perspective and given me an understanding of wheelchair sports. Now I’m more excited to watch the Paralympics than the Olympics, I’m going to play wheelchair basketball at the UT Arlington next year, and I’ve been exposed to so many opportunities.”

While Dunkin has been able to train with the South Texas Regional Adaptive and Paralympic Sport Club near her home, the state meet provided the first opportunity for Strelsky to compete head-to-head with other athletes with disabilities.

“At the other track meets, I would just race the clock and try to improve my times to qualify for the state meet,” Strelsky said. “But my teammates and friends have been really supportive of me and inspiring me all season. A group of 20 or 30 of them came to watch me at the state meet where I was able to race against the other athletes.”

Strelsky took first in the boys’ 100 and 400m and finished second in the shot put while Dunkin swept all three events in the girls’ wheelchair division.

For Dunkin the most memorable part of the state meet wasn’t her individual performance, but the way the crowd embraced her and her competitors.

“After I crossed the finish line for the 400, I stopped and waited for the other three girls, and we all lined up to do our victory lap. The crowd gave us a standing ovation, officials were crying, I starting tearing up; it’s something I’ll never forget.”

A dozen student athletes with disabilities qualified to compete in the state meet this year, and Gumbert knows that competition will only continue to grow as more people embrace adaptive sports.

“I think the fans, coaches, administrators and supporters got a true visual on how athletic and how normal these young athletes are,” Gumbert said. “It’s not really about the disability; it’s about the sport and giving them the opportunity to compete and to excel just the same as all of their high school teammates.”
Strelsky is only a sophomore at Rockdale High School and has two more years to compete in the state meet.

“I definitely look forward to defending my title,” Strelsky said. “Hopefully more and more athletes will come out and compete, by my senior year there will be at least twice as many athletes out here.”

Texas became the 20th state to currently offer competitive opportunities in track and field for student athletes with disabilities.

Adding the wheelchair events to the state meet was a collaborative effort with many individuals and organizations helping to make it possible, including the Lone Star Paralysis Foundation, Southwest Wheelchair Athletic Association, One Chair at a Time of the Texas Panhandle area, the Texas University Interscholastic League and U.S. Paralympics.

“Traci Neely and Dr. Charles Breithaupt of UIL saw the opportunity and need to add students with physical disabilities into the high school state track meet.” Said Cathy Sellers, high performance director for U.S. Paralympics track & field. “Their leadership and vision has opened the door for a segment of our society to reach their full potential as both students and athletes. What the UIL has accomplished in Texas such a short period of time is amazing.”

“Thank you would be an understatement to everyone who made this possible,” Dunkin said. “They are a complete blessing. From where I was four or five months ago to now is a total transformation, and I wouldn’t be where I am now without them.”