Warm-up exercises don’t generally evoke images of one crawling between another person’s legs giggling or smiling constantly that causes your face to hurt.
But maybe a group of 24 “All Starz” knows something that a vast majority of other athletes don’t.
“All that laughing,” Tracy Shirk said. “And people cheering for them. That’s nice, too.”
This isn’t any ordinary bunch. They are athletes with disabilities who played field hockey on Sundays throughout the fall at Lower Dauphin Middle School in Dauphin County.
All Starz field hockey is a USA Field Hockey program that represents disability inclusion. It’s part of the ‘Supporting Hockey Inclusion and New Experiences’ or SHINE initiative, designed to inspire athletes with disabilities to play field hockey. The goal is for athletes to play locally, regionally, nationally, internationally, and ultimately, create a new Special Olympics sport in the United States.
The PA Revs All-Starz team in Hummelstown is the second one created in the nation.
Tracy and Shawn Shirk are the parents of 20-year-old daughter Julianna, who has Kleefstra syndrome. They took her to the five weeks of practices and games not knowing what to expect.
“[It] is a genetic mutation,” Tracy said of Julianna’s disability. “There’s a gene that’s not quite the way it should be, and then that causes all kinds of lobal things to happen – motor delays, speech delays, a lot.”
But when Julianna was at All Starz, she didn't seem to have a care in the world. She seemingly only wanted to score when she shot at the cage or win in a friendly game of knockout.
“I think the buddies were fantastic working with her and getting her around the field and lining her up to shoot that she felt like she was actually part of the game,” Tracy said.
Julianna’s younger sister played field hockey, Shawn said.
“She enjoyed it, watching them run up and down,” he said. “And now that she’s part of that, we’ve been on fields like this as a spectator, but now she’s in the game.”
Lydia Smeltz - the mastermind
The Shirks learned about the program from Lydia Smeltz, who is behind its establishment in central Pennsylvania. Smeltz, a Central Dauphin and Duke University graduate, was both a Rams and Blue Devils field hockey player. She currently sits on the USA Field Hockey Disability Inclusion Committee.
“She actually contacted us during COVID,” PA Revs co-founder Jamie Pollock said. “We were just trying to keep our head above water and asked her if she could contact us again once we got through COVID and survived that, and she did.”
The program is under the Revs “travel club umbrella,” Pollock said.
“When I came back here for med school and started playing in an adult league, I just started thinking, ‘This is the hotbed of field hockey,’” Smeltz said. “Everyone plays field hockey here, and the sport has given me so many opportunities. But 25 percent of the US population lives with a disability, and yet there’s no opportunities for those kids to play. If it’s going to happen anywhere, why not happen here where the sport is already so strong?”
Smeltz, along with Pollock and Meg Kutz, and their daughters Avery and Victoria, “put the framework together” for the All Starz program.
“Our athletes are our special needs community, and then the buddies are who they’re paired with,” Pollock said. “We literally had to turn buddies away because we didn’t want to have too many, and we didn’t want to overwhelm anyone. We had so many kids that wanted to participate. I get choked up every time I’m here because of the smiles on our buddies’ faces, on our athletes’ faces. It’s overwhelming. It just puts life in perspective. It puts youth sports in perspective. But it’s truly awesome and humbling to be a part of it. Of all the club teams there are in the area, Lydia chose us, and I just feel thankful that we get to be part of it. Truly, honestly, it’s awesome.”
Smeltz said she “always worked with kids with disabilities growing up.” And while she doesn’t have any living family members with disabilities, she has “always felt drawn to the population.”
“I’m in medical school at Penn State Hershey,” she said. “I hope to be a pediatric physical medicine and rehab doctor, which is the type of doctor that would work with kids with disabilities. My dream job would be to be an adaptive sports med doctor, but that doesn’t exist yet. Hopefully it will soon as we continue to have more athletes with disabilities participating in sports.”
The abundance of smiles should give Smeltz an indication she’s on the right path. All Starz athletes smashed larger-sized field hockey balls to try to outdo the other. And underneath it all, they wanted to win when it came to small games.
“This is the best part of my week,” Smeltz told FAN in October. “All day I spend studying with med school, and it’s just like this is what it’s for, right? Field hockey is one of the only things I can do to fully turn my brain off from school...fully enjoy it and be able to sit back and watch the kids. They improve so much in literally five hours. It’s wild. But just think it’s amazing to help them have the opportunity and to be able to see themselves as athletes because a lot of their parents never envisioned that their kid would be an athlete, and we want them to have that full experience. That’s why it’s so important to us that they use the right sticks, they have a pinnie. They have to come to practice with their pinnie and their shin guards. And that’s important because that’s how every other athlete shows up to practice, and we want them to see themself as an athlete.”
Treated like an athlete
The cost to participate is $25.
“Lydia does a really good job for the application for the athletes,” Pollock said. “Just asking what their disabilities are so that we have some ideas. But there’s no limits.”
PA Revs helped to get the program started in the spring. The fall was the club’s second season. They are now looking at continuing it during the field hockey indoor season and running it year-round.
The players are held accountable for their actions. If they aren't using the right side of their stick, Smeltz is gonna to tell them.
“This isn’t meant to be a cutesy program, like, this is a real program,” she said. “And obviously, we work with people at their level of what their ability and function are, but we want to teach them the sport so that when we’re playing in the Special Olympics, we’re ready to go and we’re winning. I’m a little competitive.”
All Starz is sanctioned by USA Field Hockey. The Hummelstown team is the second program of its kind in the United States after Long Island, New York.
“Long Island started the first one, and actually if you look at Europe and Ireland, there’s leagues,” Pollock said. “There’s adaptive field hockey leagues. It’s unbelievable. Adaptive field hockey is big – bigger – on the world stage than it is here in the US. I know she got on an international call this summer about it. We’re definitely steps, like lots and lots of steps away from that, but I know that it is something that’s on her heart for sure.”
Smeltz can recall and recite a lot of information she learned about the growth of field hockey internationally.
“They’re going to have field hockey as a demonstration sport at the Special Olympic games in Berlin this upcoming summer," she said. "So ever year there’s international Special Olympics. But in order for the US to send a team, it needs to be an established Special Olympics sport here in the States first, which we’re not yet."
People get confused about Paralympics and the Special Olympics, she said. Special Olympics is open to anyone with an intellectual or developmental disability. The Paralympics has different classifications depending on the disabilities, but that one tends to be broader because it also includes physical disabilities, Smeltz said.
"So other countries already have adaptive field hockey," she said. "The Euro hockey league...they have just the "normal" Euro league of men's and women's international field hockey. They also have what they call “Flyerz Field Hockey,” which is their version of All Starz, and so when they have the Euro women’s championship, and the Euro men’s championship, they also have the Euro All Starz championship. There’s maybe 13 Flyerz established programs in Europe, and so there’s only two teams here in the US – us and Long Island. But that’s what we’re working toward.”
PA Revs All Starz can be found on Instagram.
“The girls do a really good job of putting pictures and stories and what not to that, and we were really fortunate,” Pollock said.
PA Revs players attend several schools in Pennsylvania including Lower Dauphin, Central Dauphin, Hershey, Carlisle, Boiling Springs, and West Perry.
"It’s awesome because these girls volunteer for our youth program, but you’ll see them sneaking on their phone and what not, but when they’re here, they’re all in," Pollock said. "Their focus is on these athletes, whatever that means. Sitting on the ground. Honestly, I mean it, like I feel blessed that we get to be a part of it.”
And the athletes are just as dedicated even in the very beginning stages of what could be a very long warm up to a bigger stage.
“One thing that I think is really cool is we have athletes from all over,” Smeltz said. “Some people drive from as far as York or other faraway places, like West Perry. I think our farthest person drives an hour and some of the kids go to school together, but some of them don’t and it’s been really cool this season to see their parents start to mingle a little more and form connections.”
If you are interested in learning more about the program, please reach out to email@example.com for more information.