Kelly Chapdelaine

Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff

Kelly Chapdelaine

Kelly Chapdelaine garners a lot of attention for her prowess as a competitive gymnast.

As a junior last season, the Keene High student-athlete finished in the top 20 in the state in the all-around. She’ll spend a lot of her time this summer, in fact, working on those skills and teaching the intricacies of the sport at the Keene Family YMCA.

This spring, for the first time, she took on a different role, as a member of the school’s unified track and field team. In unified sports, Special Olympics athletes, or those with intellectual disabilities, and partners without intellectual disabilities are united for practice and competition.

Chapdelaine, 17, had some sense of what she was in for, she said. She had, after all, been involved in unified soccer since her freshman year.

But, it’s one of those things that never gets old. And so, the spring was a blast, not to mention a nice success.

The Keene High team, which placed fifth the season before, earned a runner-up finish at the state meet.

“The kids thought that was pretty cool,” Chapdelaine said, “and it wasn’t about the finish so much; it never really is. It was about the reaction of the kids. When it was announced (finishing second), the kids were like, ‘What? We did what?’ ”

Unified sports are neat, too, because the partner athletes compete against one another. There were seven partners on the Keene team, including Chapdelaine. All she did was win the 100-meter dash (against 43 other participants), the 200-meter dash (against 25 others) and the shot put, and came in second in the long jump. She was also part of the 4 x 100 mixed relay team and the second-place 4 x 200 mixed relay.

Mike Atkins, Keene’s athletic director, called Chapdelaine’s performance in the partner events, and the Keene team’s runner-up effort, the “performance of the year” for the school. “She is a great role model” and someone who embodies all the qualities of outstanding sportsmanship, Atkins said. “She could spend her spring a lot of other ways, doing a lot of different things, but she does this.”

She was the top point-getter in the state meet among partner competitors.

Chapdelaine, who has a younger brother, Aiden, 12, opted not to play a third straight year of softball to be a part of the fledgling unified track program. As a sophomore on the varsity softball team, she earned the Coach’s Award.

But that’s not what she prefers to talk about. She said the Keene High unified track program’s growth, from just a few competitors to more than 30 this year, is encouraging. She described being a part of any unified program “a joyful experience.”

“These athletes,” she said, “go into every single practice and game just looking to have fun. There’s no stress; there’s no worry about who wins and who loses. The kids get so much out of it, and they make so many friends.”

Chapdelaine said she hopes that, over time, unified sports gains greater stature in the arena of school-supported athletics.

“I feel like people just don’t know much about it, and why we do it and have it,” she said. “I’d want them to know that partners are not forced into this at all. We choose to do it; we love it. It’s all by choice.”

She added: “I’d like to think I’ve been pretty open-minded most of my life, but, doing this, I feel I’m even more now.”

Chapdelaine said she plans to go to college and is considering a double major, in business administration and fitness administration.

Until then, it’s a lot about perfecting her gymnastics moves and routines and enjoying the rewards and satisfaction she derives from being involved in unified sports.

There are many things to do to feel like you’re making a positive difference in the life of others. For her, this is it.

It’s simple, it’s selfless ... and it’s “joyful.”