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At Kaukauna High School in east central Wisconsin, there is a longstanding tradition of sending off championship-bound student-athletes with a bang: The band plays music, the principal says a few encouraging words, and a cheering student body lines the route from the school to the buses waiting to transport them to the game. Though the spectacle is always something to behold, it’s particularly rousing for one event: the Breaking Boundaries Triathlon, an annual tri for high school students with disabilities.
“It’s a big deal for our students and school community,” said Kaukauna High teacher Jill Lotzer. “We want to show we value them and their efforts.”
The race, which began in 2019, was developed as a way to push students to break their own boundaries, whatever they may be. Some students have disabilities which require modifications to one or more event within triathlon (for example, Zumba dancing instead of swimming); other students get outside of their comfort zone by training and racing with students they normally wouldn’t interact with at school. By bringing students from both traditional and special education programs together to train for and race in the final event, triathlon serves as a vehicle for understanding and acceptance.
“Social boundaries are crossed when athletes get the opportunity to get to know new students,” Lotzer said. “It gives everyone a leadership role in providing positive encouragement and connection between students of all abilities.”
The community is heavily involved in race day as well, with local businesses sponsoring the event so students and staff at the school don’t have to bear the costs of equipment, permits, and race fees. And the community turns out on race day, with fans lining the route and filling the stands at the Bank of Kaukauna Stadium to cheer on the student-athletes.
To date, over 100 students have participated, evenly split between athletes in traditional and special education programs. Often, partners who race together form friendships that last well beyond race day.
“I believe this event helps break down boundaries in so many ways,” Lotzer said. “It shifts the culture of acceptance for all.”