UCA graduate students show up big for inaugural Arkansas para track and field meet

Sarah Malakoff was not sure what to expect when she volunteered to help with the inaugural Meet in the Middle event. But by the time she left, the University of Central Arkansas doctoral student realized the experience had solidified her dreams of becoming a physical therapist. 

“It was really encouraging to see all the support among the athletes, volunteers and parents,” said Malakoff, a first-year student in UCA’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program. “We enjoyed cheering them on and I learned so much about classifications in para-athletics. I’m glad that it may become an annual event.” 

UCA PT students

Twala Maresh, senior clinical instructor (left); Leah Lowe, associate professor; DPT Class of 2024 students Sarah Malakoff, Amanda Okolo, Shelby Little, Kaitlyn Passmore, and Cross Reames; and DPT Class of 2023 students Hannah Aviles and Dylan Alexander.

Meet in the Middle, a track and field competition for para-athletes, took place at the University of Central Arkansas Bill Stephens Track/Soccer Complex on June 4. It was sanctioned by Move United, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting parasports among people with physical disabilities. 

Two Move United chapters – Southwest Wheelchair Athletic Association (SWAA) based in Dallas-Forth Worth and the Disabled Athletes Sports Association (DASA) in St. Louis – came together to host the event. The name, Meet in the Middle, stems from its location: Conway, Arkansas, the home of UCA, is almost exactly halfway between Dallas-Forth Worth and St. Louis. 

When SWAA board member Paul Johnson and DASA executive director Kelly Behlmann decided they wanted their chapters to co-host an event, they began looking for help enlisting sponsors and recruiting volunteers. Physical therapist Betsey Benson of Conway-based Pediatrics Plus was immediately willing to step up. 

Kaden Hensarling

Kaden Hensarling, 15, participates in shot put competition at the June 4 Meet in the Middle event.

“Paul and Kelly were very complimentary of the quality and the quantity of the UCA volunteers,” Benson said. “They told me they usually don’t have nearly that many volunteers, but UCA students really showed up. I knew I could trust those two programs to do well.” 

Malakoff, along with about 25 other UCA physical therapy and occupational therapy students (and two faculty members), helped facilitate field events by retrieving objects that were thrown, measuring and recording distances and helping the athletes set up their adaptive equipment. 

Hannah Aviles, a second-year student in UCA’s physical therapy program, loves the idea of helping patients of all ages. 

“My favorite part,” Aviles said, “was when we found out there was an Arkansan competing. It was so fun cheering them on and seeing how the barriers can be overcome. It was just awesome.” 

During her day of volunteering, Aviles learned a lot about the different types of adaptive equipment the athletes were using for their sports. 

UCA Physical Therapy students Hannah Aviles, Cole Wright, Erin Woodward and Sidney Hunt.

UCA Physical Therapy students Hannah Aviles (left), Cole Wright, Erin Woodward and Sidney Hunt.

“It’s important for us to advocate for more opportunities like this for children and their families,” Aviles said. 

And that ability to advocate for others is one reason she wanted to become a physical therapist. “You’re impacting what may seem like a small part of a person’s life, but for them that’s huge. Helping patients overcome obstacles makes a big difference in their lives.”

Benson left the event inspired to do more for athletes with different abilities. She’s looking forward to future events and is hopeful Arkansas could one day start a similar initiative. 

“We want this to grow and be a jumping point for more participation and interest in para-sports in central Arkansas where kids with physical disabilities can learn to be competitive athletes on a level playing field, we need that.”