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Students cross finish line with confidence in Lawrence school district’s adaptive triathlon

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The time he spent pounding the track’s pavement during the adaptive triathlon Wednesday at Lawrence High was the funnest part for Richard Outcalt. That, and the Southwest Middle School eighth-grader envisioning himself attending LHS in the fall.

Richard attributed part of the “boost” he received while he made his way around the track to district intern Jackson Mallory, an LHS alum and senior at Ottawa University, who ran alongside him.

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“It was great. We ran together like friends,” Richard said.

Dozens of student-athletes of all abilities joined the pair for the third Pat Grzenda Adaptive Triathlon. The event is named after a former adaptive physical education teacher and LHS swim coach who retired from the Lawrence school district in 2011 after 34 years.

Grzenda and her husband, Joe, eagerly rooted for participants during the event’s return after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Grzenda reflected on teaching students with disabilities — a specialty she stuck with her entire career.

“I got a fellowship when I was just finishing school to go into this area that was very new. And at that time, didn’t know if I had that much interest in it, and then I fell in love with it.”

Joe and Pat Grzenda attended the Lawrence school district’s adaptive triathlon on May 4, 2022 at Lawrence High School. The event was named after Pat, who retired from the district in 2011 after 34 years of teaching. (Tricia Masenthin/The Lawrence Times)

Passed in 1975, the legislation that established adaptive PE programs was the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. It was later renamed and is known today as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – or IDEA.

The adaptive PE teaching baton has since passed to Jayme Savage and Brad Stoll. They teach K-12 students with disabilities across the district.

Hype filled the atmosphere Wednesday. Cheerleaders, mascots, balloons, high-fives and fans kept the student-athletes revved up all the way through the medal ceremony.

While some athletes navigated all or parts of the triathlon solo, others received support from paraprofessionals, peers, educators, volunteers and family members. Whenever students wanted or needed an assist, support arrived.

Milo Scotten felt confident after finishing. Although tired after a morning of swimming, stationary biking and laps around the track, the Liberty Memorial Central Middle School sixth-grader had some advice for his peers.

“Don’t underestimate yourself. I’ve learned that. Do not underestimate yourself. You’d be surprised at how much you can actually do.”

Milo’s mom, grandmother and siblings all attended and cheered him on. Milo said he felt good about his performance during his first triathlon, although he did experience some jitters in the pool.

“I was a bit nervous because it was the first event and I wanted to make sure I started off strong.”

Truman Juelsgaard and Tavaris Davie

Tavaris Davie, LHS junior and a huge sports fan, wore a blue Jayhawks sweatsuit during much of the competition. He said biking and running were his favorite activities at the triathlon, although they couldn’t top the Jayhawks’ recent NCAA men’s basketball championship.

“It still feels so good. I’m so happy KU won it all this year.” 

During the closing ceremony, participants received individual recognition, a medal and a Pat Grzenda Triathlon T-shirt. They posed for photos on the tri-level podium, and some raised their arms in triumph during their moment in the spotlight.

Parent Becca Booth, an LHS alum, attended with her son, Truman Meyers, a West Middle School student. Booth said she witnessed Grzenda’s “inspirational  contributions” when she attended LHS and dubbed her “one of a kind.”

“I’m so glad they named this after her because no one is more deserving.”

As the mother of a child on the autism spectrum, Booth said her families’ experience with the adaptive PE program had exceeded her expectations. Grzenda and Stoll — or “Mr. Brad,” as Booth referred to him — are the type of teachers who foster a classroom culture that doesn’t “other” students with special needs.

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“(Truman) went from not participating in gym at all to looking forward to being in gym with Mr. Brad every week,” Booth said. “They just make it feel like, this is who they are, and they treat them just like anybody else would want to be treated, and that’s really important to a parent. Then the kids follow it, so I think that’s something that has definitely been passed down throughout all of the other teachers that are here now.”

Superintendent Anthony Lewis helped award the prizes and assisted student-athletes throughout the competition. He called the triathlon one of his “favorite events of the year.”

“This is really, truly a testament to the inclusive culture that we have in this district. We have all of our scholars, despite abilities, disabilities, cheering each other on. And it’s named after one of our fabulous adaptive PE teachers, Pat. So this is hugely exciting for me, and I blocked half a day off for this because I definitely wanted to spend some time with our scholars here.”

The idea for a triathlon originated from Savage and Stoll, according to Denise Johnson, the district’s assistant director of health and wellness.

Johnson said the end-of-the-year celebration for secondary students aligns with the PE department’s vision, which includes empowering all students to form healthy habits and become lifelong participants in physical activity.

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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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