Wet weather on a recent Wednesday morning didn’t dampen the spirits of special needs children paired with high school students from Zachary as they competed together in a new event for Capital Area Special Olympics — horseshoes.

Horseshoes is the latest sport added to the unified sports program, an inclusive sports program that partners an equal number of Special Olympics athletes — individuals with intellectual disabilities — with student-athletes without intellectual disabilities.

Debra Toney, an adapted physical education teacher and Special Olympics coordinator, said horseshoes are being added in the Capital Area Special Olympics and the unified sports program.

Athletes had a chance to show off their horseshoe-throwing skills Oct. 1 during the Capital Area Developmental Horseshoe competition at the Perkins Road Community Park.

“We implemented Unified Sports and had about 200 East Baton Rouge and 70 Zachary youths entering the horseshoes event. This is the first time that horseshoes has been offered since the ’90s,” Toney said.

The students who have volunteered to be paired with Special Olympics athletes are referred to as partners and have participated in training and competition events.

Gavin Rushing, 17, a junior at Zachary High School, volunteered to be a partner.

“My math teacher asked if I would be interested, and I said that I’d love to do it. I’ve been around special needs children my entire life since my mom was a special education teacher. I grew up knowing how to work with them.”

When asked how the horseshoes throwing event went on Oct. 1, Rushing said, “Everybody was smiling and having a good time. It was awesome. I would absolutely volunteer to do this again.”

The concept of combining athletes with intellectual disabilities and those without was first introduced in the mid-1980s to provide another level of challenge for higher-ability athletes and to promote equality and inclusion, Toney said, and unified sports provides a great way to unite special education and other students together in athletic competition. “Students learn to see people for their abilities, not their disabilities,” she said.

Samantha McMillan, director of athlete and family initiatives with Special Olympics Louisiana, came to ZHS to talk with students participating in the program. Select students from ZHS volunteered to partner with high-school-age Special Olympians, and the teams competed in the first Capital Area Horseshoes Tournament at BREC’s Perkins Road Community Park last Wednesday.

“This was the first time I was asked to volunteer,” Jack Dixon, 16, of Zachary High, said. “This is a new experience and a growing experience for all of us, plus it’s not that far out of my comfort zone, since I’m a kid and like hanging out with kids. They were really happy and I enjoyed myself. … I would do this again.”

Junior Grace Gantz, also 16, said she’s been volunteering with special needs children since she was a freshman. Her partner in horseshoes, Aaron Fronek, is someone she has bowled with in previous Special Olympics events.

“It’s fun, and they’re so happy. It makes me feel like I shouldn’t be negative or complaining about anything,” she said.

Gantz said that because of her volunteer work with special needs youth, she is considering becoming a special education teacher.

Other students, as well as volunteers from Zachary fire and police departments, are invited to participate in the annual Zachary Time Trials event held each spring in Bronco Stadium.

The Zachary time trials and upcoming practice bowling events are for obtaining entry scores for the Capital Area Special Olympics. For all other events, an athlete must qualify for Special Olympics at the state level, Toney said.

“I’m looking forward to another great year,” the Special Olympics coordinator said.

Prior to the horseshoes event, doctors provided free examinations to the athletes.

Doctors in the Zachary and St. Francisville area administered 43 free physicals Sept. 24 to special needs students from Rollins Place, Zachary and Copper Mill Elementary schools, Northwestern Middle and Zachary High in preparation for the upcoming events. Dr. Amanda Talbot and Dr. Courtney James, of Primary Care of Zachary; Dr. Brooke Bock, of Pediatric Clinic of St. Francisville; and Katherine Perkins, a nurse practitioner student, volunteered to give the physicals.

“These doctors are exemplary of this year’s Zachary Connected theme that’s being embraced by the schools and city,” Toney said. “They promoted a chain reaction of kindness for Zachary’s special needs students who will be participating in Special Olympics this year.”

Capital Area Special Olympics events remaining for EBR and Zachary students include two practice bowling dates — Nov. 5 and Nov. 12 — at All Star Lanes Baton Rouge. Toney will be the director overseeing these events.

Qualifying bowling dates for middle and high school students will be held in December.

Zachary time trials are set for February, and track and field events have been scheduled for March at Woodlawn High School.