- West Orange Public Schools
West Orange High School Track Alumni Changing the Sports World
WEST ORANGE, NJ – West Orange High School Class of 2021 alum Sebastian DeSimone is not only enjoying his college experience at Gwynedd Mercy University, he is also changing the face of sports for students with intellectual disabilities at the national level.
DeSimone was a popular student and teammate at WOHS, and a member of the track team. He participated in the 18-21 program and received a waiver to participate in track past 18 since he was still a student. He also received the Teammate of the Year Award in 2022.
"Sebastian is very passionate about running and has an even greater fondness for his coaches and teammates," West Orange HIgh School Acting Athletic Director Stephan Zichella remarked.
"Every interaction with Sebastian was uplifting and positive. Those that know Sebastian miss him dearly here at the high school," he noted.
“From a parent's perspective, I would say that Sebastian's experience with the WOHS cross country and track teams set a high bar in terms of its inclusivity,” began Sebastian’s mother, Joanne DeSimone.
“Literally, the first thing his cross country coach said to me was "Everyone is welcome. It was a place where Sebastian learned how to set and achieve goals and where he found his greatest sense of belonging. He was absolutely treated as equally-respected and valued just like everyone else. It is where his desire to compete at the college level was born. He learned that hard work enables you to do hard things,” she explained.
Once he began attending GMU, he wanted to continue track. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) requirements for students like Sebastian disallowed his participation since he was a not a full-time student in a degree-bearing program. The Integrated Studies program for students with intellectual disabilities earns certificates and not degrees.
With the help of his mother Joanne and Gwynedd Mercy’s Director of Athletics, the NCAA allowed the waiver – and a whole lot more.
In August, 2022, the NCAA’s subcommittee for legislative relief approved a change making it easier for students like Sebastian to compete in Division III athletics if they have the athletic ability. Future Integrated Studies students will no longer have to submit a waiver request to staff. In what is known as a “previously approved waiver,” students with intellectual disabilities will be eligible if their programs are approved by the U.S. Department of Education. Read the text of the new rule HERE.
“WOHS taught Sebastian to advocate for himself and gave him the confidence to push beyond the myths and low expectations often assigned to students with disabilities,” said Ms. DeSimone.
“He never doubted his ability to be the first Integrated Studies Student Athlete at Gwynedd Mercy University and, since he'd been given so many opportunities at WOHS to be in a leadership position, I never doubted him either. We are thrilled to have helped pave a smoother path for other students to participate in collegiate sports,” she added.
The number of universities providing programs for students with intellectual disabilities has grown from 25 in 2004 to over 350 in 2022. Although there are only three Division III schools in Pennsylvania, including Gwynedd Mercy, the new ruling will open up the door nationwide to other colleges and universities.
"We are not surprised at the wonderful success he is achieving at the intercollegiate level," acknowledged Zichella.
"I would like to thank my coaches and teachers at WOHS for preparing me for college and for supporting me, stated Sebastian.
“Before I got the waiver, I was nervous because I didn't know if I would be allowed to run. I knew it was important to stay motivated and keep advocating for myself. I'm happy that it will be easier for other students and they won't have to worry like I did. I want to encourage everyone to keep doing what they love and keep working hard. Thanks to everyone for your support!”
Dec. 4, 2022