SANDY — Alex Maughan isn't going to help the Jordan wrestling team win any titles.
But what the 16-year-old sophomore adds to the team — and to the lives of the young wrestlers — is immeasurable.
"He's really fun," said senior Michael Neddo, an academic all-state wrestler. "He brings a lot more energy and excitement to the team. He makes it a more fun environment. His attitude (is his best contribution), because at practice we work hard, and we forget about the fun part of playing a sport. He brings that back to it."
Natalie Maughan never expected what happened when she emailed Jordan head wrestling coach Chris Babinski and asked if Alex, who has Down syndrome and Type 1 diabetes, could participate in his wrestling class for a few minutes each day.
"He's a very active little man," said Maughan. "He's good at sports. Maybe he can't tell you what one plus one is, but he can dribble a basketball and shoot really well."
She said her son didn't understand why it was inappropriate to tackle or jump on other people. Her hope was that if Alex was allowed to participate in the wrestling class, she could use it as incentive to get him to behave at home.
"I have a 16-year-old with a 3-year-old brain," she said. "He's getting too big for me to manhandle; I thought if I could tell him, when he tried to wrestle people at home, 'Hey, we only wrestle in class,' he would learn where that behavior is appropriate." She was shocked when Babinski suggested he come out for the Beetdigger wrestling team that following Monday.
"I honestly thought it was a joke," she said. "I didn't think that was a possibility. He can wrestle, but he doesn't know any moves. Coach said, 'That's what practice is for.' He was on the team from that point on."
Babinski said he's had student-athletes with a variety of disabilities — from emotional issues to physical disabilities. And in his 22 years as a coach, he's always tried to include students any way they can.
But not every public school is as accommodating as Jordan High, although most Utah schools are. In some states, disabled students have sued over the right to participate in high school athletics. Friday, the U.S. Department of Education issued what some are calling a "landmark" directive stating that access to interscholastic, intramural and intercollegiate athletics is a civil right.
"Sports can provide invaluable lessons in discipline, selflessness, passion and courage, and this guidance will help schools ensure that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to benefit from the life lessons they can learn on the playing field or on the court," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement announcing the new guidance Friday.
While national education leaders and advocates for the disabled hailed the new directive, which seems to add sports to the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, local school officials aren't sure much will change.
"There is no change in the law," said Mark Van Wagoner, attorney for the Utah High School Activities Association. "This is something we've done and followed for as long as I can remember. It's a re-emphasis as far as I can tell. We've always tried to accommodate students under (Section) 504, and this won't change that."
He said just this fall, the UHSAA allowed some golfers to use a cart in order to accommodate them in tournaments. Schools have received special accommodations for a variety of athletes — from deaf football players to blind runners.
"Sometimes we have people who don't have a 504 accommodation, but we've always tried to be compliant with federal law," he said. "You can't get a 504 that insists you are on the team. What we're required to do is provide the opportunity."
Van Wagoner called the directive "a great thing" but said the law has really always required this.
The requirements of federal law never entered into Babinski's decision, nor those of other coaches at the school. Alex's teacher, Heather Weiler, rattles off multiple students who've participated in everything from swimming to track.
Babinski said it isn't just Jordan High that wants to include students society tends to "leave by the wayside."
"Every school we've asked (to accommodate Alex) has bent over backwards to make it work," said Babinski. "We've never had anyone say no. It takes a little getting used to. Sometimes they talk out loud when coach is talking, but we help them develop some skills and discipline."
Weiler said teachers and parents can give students advice or guidance, but real socialization takes place with peers.
"I can say, 'chew with your mouth closed,' and he may not listen," she said. "But if a friend says, 'Dude, I can see everything in your mouth!' it helps them learn better behavior."
The National Federation of High Schools held a conference call with Seth Galanter, deputy secretary of education, Friday. That call led to the NFHS issuing a memo that emphasized five points, including telling athletic directors they do not need to change the nature of the game in trying to accommodate disabled students.
Natalie Maughan said that's not what most parents of disabled students want.
"I don't want (his participation) to take away form the other students," she said. "It's a very tough balancing act. Schools are already asked to do a lot of balancing. Teachers are asked to do a lot — with a lack of funding."
Marc Hunter, Jordan's athletic director and president of the Utah Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, said most schools operate on the assumption that "anything that allows kids to participate is a good thing."
He said this isn't a new idea, but it does raise questions about what lengths schools will now be required to go in providing opportunities.
"I think it offers more questions that answers at this point," Hunter said. "We're in the kid business. Who in their right mind doesn't want kids to have an equal chance to participate? But there are also questions. Is it as monumental as Title IX? Do we have to provide adaptive equivalent in every sport? We're not sure at this point."
Natalie Maughan isn't sure what the future will hold for Alex, but she's grateful that for the first time he is enjoying school. His experience has exceeded her expectations.
"He has something to be proud of now," she said. "It isn't just Mom getting exercise for him. He was actually able to wrestle during meets and he lost one and won five. He was given the win, but the other opponents were very kind, and they made him earn it."2 comments on this story
She recalled through tears how she watched him celebrate his first victory on a wrestling mat.
"I cried. He was elated," said Maughan. "He called all of his brothers and sisters. He called his birth father. He called everyone and told them, 'I won!' He was very excited."