June 29, 2022

Former PU Assistant Coach Harrington Makes History, Helping to Introduce Unified Track to Special Olympics

UNIFIED APPROACH: Thomas Harrington, left, greets members of the New Jersey team in the unified competition at the Special Olympics USA Games held in Orlando, Fla., earlier this month. Former Princeton University women’s track assistant coach Harrington served as a technical delegate at the Games, running and coordinating the unified track competition. (Photo provided by Thomas Harrington)

By Bill Alden

Starting in the late 1980s, Thomas Harrington has experienced success coaching track at several levels.

Guiding Lawrence High and then moving on to Stuart Country Day School, Harrington’s teams amassed over 200 wins, 31 championships, and three All-America awards.

Stepping up to the college level, Harrington served as an assistant coach for the Princeton University women’s track program from 2005-2016, helping the Tigers win a number of indoor and outdoor Ivy League titles.

Over the last four years, he has been an assistant coach at Princeton High, focusing on developing the program’s sprinters and hurdlers.

But for Harrington, the highlight of his stellar coaching career has been his 30-plus years of involvement with the Special Olympics.

“I have coached at every level, from little people to collegiate to Olympian but what I have found as I dealt with the athletes at this level is that there is such a genuine appreciation that goes well beyond the coaching part,” said Harrington, who starting working with Special Olympics in 1989 when he ran coaches clinic for the organization at Lawrence High.

“There is a different energy level. Once a (Special Olympics) games is over, I am toast, I am completely tired and I am not going back. I end up in a ShopRite or Wegmans and I hear somebody say ‘hey coach,’ and one of the athletes comes running over and hugs my knees. They hooked me in. This is my passion.”

Earlier this month, Harrington ran and coordinated the unified track competition at the Special Olympics USA Games held in Orlando, Fla., from June 5-12 as it was held for the first time in the event.

Unified track involves athletes with and without intellectual disabilities competing alongside each other in a team competition in seven events, the 100 dash, 200, 400, 4×100 relay, 4×400, shot put, and long jump.

“This is historical, I introduced unified track and field to the Special Olympics,” said Harrington. “Unified track is totally different from other Special Olympics events because it is athletes versus athletes,  sometimes athletes versus partner and sometimes it is partner versus partner. The difference with unified track is that they compete against their performances.”

The unified competition also involves plenty of tactics as teams mix and match their athletes to accumulate as many points as possible.

“This is a scored competition, it is always a team event,” explained Harrington. “It is a strategy for the coaches and athletes to figure out how your team can score. In the 100, if there are nine heats, each one of those nine heats score. Our first, second, and third place finishers will get 5,3,1 points. If I put three athletes in that one event, that one who may be fastest may not score in that fastest heat. The heats are seeded based on prior performance. Once that is done, we re-division for the finals and then you are matched up again based on that.”

For Harrington, the effort in Orlando was the latest step in his quest to help put unified track in the map.

“We started unified track in New Jersey seven or eight years ago,” said Harrington. “I was the one who put together unified track in New Jersey for Special Olympics. The very first meet was run over at Hopewell. I was the starter and I put the meet together. We had maybe five or six teams then. I think right now there are close to 30-plus teams in New Jersey.”

Putting together the Special Olympics USA games at Princeton University in 2014 was a highlight of Harrington’s involvement with the program.

“That was probably the greatest event I have ever put on for Special Olympics and probably track in general,” asserted Harrington. “I was part of the team that went to petition the Special Olympics North America to have it in New Jersey. We and Boston were the two finalists. I had to go and speak to our national group and basically I talked about how Special Olympics has not only changed my life but has changed the way people look at our athletes who have intellectual disabilities and what they can do. It is about giving them another opportunity to take their unique ability and still be made part of this country.”

Princeton was chosen and the event went smoothly as nearly 3,500 athletes competed, supported by 1,000 coaches and delegates, 10,000 volunteers, and 70,000 spectators.

“To do that and host it at Princeton which is my home and then to put the whole meet together and to see the commitment was great,” said Harrington. “We received so many outstanding comments and outstanding kudos about how we ran that meet.”

Down in Orlando, Harrington, a wiry and energetic 64, was a busy man as he ran the unified meet.

“I was hitting the track everyday between 5:30 and 6, I saw the sun rise five days in a row,” said Harrington, who also handled the scheduling for the whole track meet as well as the unified competition.

“We were walking around, making sure everything is running, we had track officials from all over the place. I went around and made sure that the events were running in a meet. It was meet within a meet with the unified competition. We had 12 states that were competing. We had to keep them going. We developed our own text chain so we could answer all of the questions. Any questions about unified always came to me. I had the rulebook, I had everything. If it is unified, see Harrington.”

The introduction of the unified competition to the USA Games proved popular and laid the groundwork for its inclusion in future events.

“It was totally successful, I have had so much positive feedback,” said Harrington, noting that the team from Virginia ended up winning the competition with New Hampshire coming in second.

“You may do your unified track in a particular way, a little deviation from what the rules are. This is what Special Olympics North America is going to do. That is the goal — to set a national template for the next time. This was the model that I presented. That is exciting, it has never been done nationally.”

For Harrington, the excitement of providing athletes with more opportunities to compete is the driving force for him.

“It is the inclusion revolution; it is to let the athletes know that they are included,” said Harrington. “You have a different ability but you don’t have a different skill. What you do, you do well for you. By including them with the partners now you are taking two different abilities and putting them together on the same team. That is the inclusion part. The whole thing has been being part of history and laying out the blueprint for what we can do nationally.”