Ethan Casale (right) is Houlton's first Unified Athlete to compete in cross country for the Shires. Casale was an integral part of the Shires team this fall, allowing the group to score as a full team in its meets. Running alongside Casale is his teacher Ellen Dyer. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — Ethan Casale may not have finished among the top runners in any of his cross country meets this season, but that did not stop the junior from having the time of his life.

The 17-year-old son of April and Richard Michaud, Casale became Houlton’s first Unified athlete to compete in cross country for the Shires this fall. He also competed in Unified basketball in February and track and field during the spring sports season.

Casale has autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to his mother. But his love for sports is undeniable, she said.

Unified sports partners students with developmental disabilities with those who do not have them to train, compete and represent their school together, according to the Maine Principals’ Association website. At a time when schools are struggling to fill sports rosters so they can qualify to participate in competitions, having another resource such as this can be the difference between having a team or not having one.

“He loves sports, like basketball, cross country and track,” April Michaud said. “I am so happy that they finally allow kids like him to participate in sports. Kids like [Ethan] have sensory issues and coordination problems and doing sports has helped him tremendously in those areas. I am so proud of my boy.”

Unified sports came to Houlton Middle-High School in February when the RSU 29 school board approved basketball as a club sport. Unified athletes also competed in track and field and cross country.

Unified sports are included under the umbrella of the MPA through a partnership with Special Olympics. Unified sports affects a variety of students and helps promote physical activity, teamwork, sportsmanship and social inclusion.

For Casale, that teamwork meant the Shire boys finally had enough people to score as a team for the first time in coach Chris Rines coaching career.

“Ethan was a key part of our cross country team,” Rines said. “Without him, we would not have been able to score.”

Most recently, the Shire boys completed the fall sports season by running in the Class C Regional championships in Belfast. During the Oct. 22, 5-kilometer race, Casale logged a career personal best time of 33 minutes, 24.81 seconds.

While competing in cross country, Casale’s teacher Ellen Dyer runs side-by-side with him to make sure that he stays focused on the course. Dyer said the two formed a strong bond as they raced along the course in meets this year.

The two maintained a slow, but steady pace, and they completed every race for the Shires. Dyer said Ethan typically was the one who established the running pace for their meets.

“Until I get faster and you can’t keep up with me,” Casale joked. “My speed has been changing.”

Rines said that Casale showed considerable improvement on the course as the season went on, shaving 17 minutes off his longest time to his fastest finish at the regional championship. He also logged a whopping 125 miles in total this season.

His mother said Casale’s participation in sports has had a positive impact on his development.

“He’s made friends, and when his teammates cheer him on, it helps his self-esteem,” April Michaud said. “He seems more confident and proud of his accomplishments. Routine helps a lot. He has matured a lot since he started playing sports.”

Casale also competed with teammates during the inaugural Unified basketball season and participated in track and field, doing the shot put, long jump and 100-meter dash.

Choosing one sport over another was not something Casale could do.

“They are all fun,” he said. “I wish I could do them all the time.”