KINGSFORD. Mich. (WJMN) – Marquette’s Jim Bennett and Sault Ste Marie’s Johnny Osborn are setting a new standard for adaptive athletes.

“I’m really happy that we’re able to do this because I know that you only see us right now but I bet there are a bunch of kids at home that are looking forward to doing this,” said Osborn. “We want to make sure we can help their high school program so that we can keep this going because I can’t wait to see this keep growing as it will be more fun than just Jimmy and I doing this.”

They excelled in their respective events at the most recent U.P. Track and Field Finals.

Currently there are eight adaptive athletes competing at the high school level throughout the state, but that number is growing by the year.

We spoke with Monica Aho, the founder of the group “I Am An athlete, Too”. It’s a movement to incorporate adaptive athletes into Michigan High School Athletic Association track and field.

“I Am An Athlete, Too,’ started about two years ago when a high school athlete name Maria Velat, who was a track athlete, suffered an injury and became a wheelchair racer,” said Aho. “She was allowed to participate on her high school team, but when it came to regionals and finals she wasn’t allowed to compete because there wasn’t a wheelchair category. She spent two years lobbying the High School Athletic Association to create a wheelchair category and I was her physical therapist. So, I supported her and she has moved onto the University of Michigan Track & Field team, but we are still lobbying the Michigan High School Athletic Association.

Aho says while strides are being made for more equality amongst the adaptive athletes, there is still a ways to go.

“They created a two year pilot program and now we’re trying to get that pilot program permanent and to include an ambulatory category to allow these athletes to score points for their team and to participate in any event that standing runners are,” said Aho.  

“These are athletes that are working hard and they want to be just like the rest of their peers,” said Andrea Osborn.

Andrea Osborn is the mother of Johnny Osborn, she is one of many advocating for equality amongst adaptive racers.

“When they show up at an event they’re being treated almost like they are a lesser athlete because they don’t get the opportunity to earn points,” said Osborn. “So right now there are proposals with the Michigan High School Athletic Association because this is year two of the pilot program, and we’re advocating for the program to continue but also to improve to allow the athletes to earn points to support their teams.”

Osborn thinks that giving these athletes an equal opportunity will help them grow on and off the track.

It allows my son to feel like he is truly a part of that team,” said Osborn. “You know, he is not going to go out and race an able-bodied traditional athlete and be competitive, but allow him to have an equal playing field with his peers and to grow that confidence and know that he is not just there putting time into practice but he is truly a member of that team.”

“It was a very good competition,” said Osborn. “I’m happy that we both did good and I was trying to catch up to this man over here, he’s pretty fast.”

“Glad to have that opportunity to be able to compete at the high level,” said Jim Bennett, a junior on the Marquette Track & Field team. “The next few years hopefully we get enough people to have a full heat.”

With the pilot program ending this year, both Aho and Osborn are hoping the MHSAA will consider making it permanent for future adaptive athletes

“These are athletes, they work hard, they’re part of their teams, they train just as hard as everyone else,” said Aho. “Now that their team, schools are legally obligated through the American Sprinter Disability Act to include these athletes, but because the MHSAA doesn’t receive federal funding, they aren’t under those obligations but they are the governing body for schools and it would make life so much easier for school to have the regulations to include these athletes. If you know someone who is an athletic director, track coach, school administrator, have them contact the MHSAA. They’re seeing feedback right now in order to make the category permanent. We just want to get as much feedback as possible.”

Local 3 reached out to the M.H.S.A.A. to get an update on where they are in the process of making the adaptive pilot program permanent. Here is a statement from their Communication Director, Geoff Kimmerly:

“The addition of adaptive track & field events over the last two years has been an overwhelmingly positive experience The next step in our process is presenting the participation data from the last two years of adaptive events to our Track & Field Committee when it meets during the upcoming school year; the Committee can then decide if it will forward a recommendation to the MHSAA’s Representative Council to continue extending the opportunity to compete in adaptive events at our postseason events. This is the same process as when Paralympic swim events started as a pilot program and the Council approved those opportunities to continue as well once the pilot program was completed.

The Track & Field Committee also will discuss possible additions and enhancements moving forward – team scoring would be part of that conversation – and the participation data and input from our member schools will drive the process and those considerations.”