Meet the 14-year-old athlete with Down syndrome inspiring others to take up sport
'I feel like I've become an athlete. I just want to say I'm really so happy'
Jacob MacNeill, a Grade 8 student at Birchwood Intermediate, has a need for speed.
The 14-year-old is a proud member of his school's track and field team, running the 80 m and 150 m dash.
MacNeill also happens to have Down syndrome. He was the Easter Seals PEI Ambassador in 2015, where his motto was, "Be yourself. Everyone is different."
He's been an inspiration and he's been so much fun. He brings so much entertainment and fun and team spirit.— Joanne MacAdam
He loves being part of his school's team -- he enjoys the camaraderie he shares with his teammates and the thrill of competing with other athletes.
"It fills me with joy. I feel alive. I feel like I've become an athlete. I just want to say I'm really so happy."
MacNeill and his team have been training hard for the past month.
At the recent Zone 3 Track and Field Meet at UPEI their team spirit was on full display.
Students, coaches and school staff cheered on the athletes as they ran, jumped and hurtled their way through the competition.
Joanne MacAdam, MacNeill's Grade 8 teacher and the track coach at Birchwood Intermediate, says he adds a great deal to the team.
"He's been an inspiration and he's been so much fun. He brings so much entertainment and fun and team spirit," she said.
"The big thing is to be a little community and it's been great to see that Jacob's just one of the kids. He's just one of the group and that's what it's about, that he's part of us."
A community comes together
That tight-knit community at Birchwood includes night custodian Bernadette MacLean, who volunteered to help the team at the track meet even though she had a full night of cleaning ahead of her at the school.
With a clipboard in hand, she kept kids organized and on time, all while cheering them on from the sidelines.
When asked why she did it, her answer was simple.
"To support the kids, plain and simple just for the kids. It is a great feeling to see all the kids finish the race, no matter what school they are from no matter, what age they are," she said.
"Finish the race, that's the goal.... that's the goal. To compete and do your best and finish the race."
'He doesn't give up'
Grade 8 student Roland Chech says he was inspired to join the track team because of his friendship with MacNeill.
It's his first time playing a team sport.
It warms my heart that he is included as a full member of whatever he decides to do. I love inclusion.— Andrea MacNeill
"It's really fun and he's really inspiring to run with because he really supports the team and he's really the one who makes you happy when you're sad," Chech said.
"It gives me more inspiration and faith in myself because he inspired me to start running more and to compete. He always commits to something he would like to do. He doesn't give up he just keeps trying no matter what he does."
'I love inclusion'
Mom Andrea MacNeill loves to hear that her son is inspiring others to step outside their comfort zone and try something new.
She says her son's confidence has grown tremendously by getting involved in school sports -- in addition to running track, he also wrestles and plays basketball on his school teams.
She appreciates the strong and supportive community her son has found at Birchwood.
"It warms my heart that he is included as a full member of whatever he decides to do. I love inclusion. I love that he is being included," she said.
"I honestly don't think that Jacob knows he has a disability but to be included and to be supported, it doesn't single him out as having a disability.He's just part of the gang. He's one of the friends, one of the fun and I like that. And I know he does too."
When it was time for MacNeill to step up to the line for his race, his Birchwood team mates were there to cheer him on -- every step of the way.
And as he crossed the finish line, MacNeill got high fives and pats on the back from the other runners in his heat.
As they took their places on the finish line at the end of the race, the winner took a moment to lean over and shake MacNeill's hand.
I love being here with my team and I just want to say thanks ... I will never forget this moment.— Jacob MacNeill
MacLean summed up the moment with one word.
"Happiness... it was just great."
For MacNeill, running alongside his peers and competing with athletes from other schools was a dream come true.
"I love being here with my team and I just want to say thanks," he said.
"Thanks to my teacher, my coach and my team. It was a great time, I will never forget this moment."