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Houlton student becomes cross-country team's first unified athlete

The unified program gives students with disabilities the chance to get involved in sports and represent their school.

HOULTON, Maine — Houlton Middle/High School student Ethan Casale has become a sort of celebrity across the school, thanks to his recent teamwork through the unified athletes program offered for the Shires. 

It all started when Cross-Country Coach Chris Rines realized he didn't have enough runners on his boy's team to compete in meets. 

"Sometimes we just straight up don't have five boys that come out and run. Other times it's illness. This is illness season," Rines said. "It was our team's goal all year to just have a team score every single meet and because of Ethan, that was possible for us."

Casale became that integral piece Rines had been looking for, not only allowing the group to compete but also becoming the team's first unified athlete. Casale has previously been involved with the school's basketball team through the unified sports program but didn't want to stop there. 

" [The cross country season] We can say very good," Casale said. 

"Started off a bit rocky, but you could say that's part of the learning process; ended with a solid 33:24 for his fastest time," Ellen Dyer explained, Casale's teacher and running partner.

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Part of the Special Olympics, unified sports joins students with developmental disabilities with others who do not get to compete as a whole. The state introduced the program in 2015.

Dyer says training with Casale was bumpy at first, but the pair eventually smoothed out. 

"Learning how to work with Ethan on a coach-athlete level is a little different, especially where I'm his guide runner. Getting to know him and his speed, his ability for that day," Dyer said. 

Casale and Dyers' efforts not only allowed the team to score as a full team in its meets, but the group has grown together, with Casale already looking forward to next year's season. 

"You know something, it doesn't mean if autistic that I can't do anything or [be in] last place," Casale stated. "Even if you have autism, it means you can still do stuff, right?" Dyer responded.


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