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Zoe Sullivan can’t wait for the next field hockey season

Sullivan became just another girl on the Collingswood High field hockey team, and not “the girl with Down syndrome.” She can't wait to play again next year.

Zoe Sullivan, 15, at her Collingswood home. Her parents and brother were a bit apprehensive when Zoe decided she wanted to play for the Collingswood High field hockey program.
Zoe Sullivan, 15, at her Collingswood home. Her parents and brother were a bit apprehensive when Zoe decided she wanted to play for the Collingswood High field hockey program.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

When the Panthers of Collingswood High School fell to the Woodstown Wolverines, a fiercely competitive freshman named Zoe Sullivan cried.

Her mother, Kim Brooks, later posted on Facebook that her 15-year-old daughter’s tears were about more than disappointment at losing.

Those three months of field hockey practice, scrimmages, games, and traditions — team dinners, “secret sisters,” buses back and forth to rival high schools across South Jersey — marked the first time that Zoe, who has Down syndrome, could feel like just another member of a typical sports team.

“Being part of the team … was just as big for her as playing the game, and when it ended she felt it to her core,” Brooks wrote, adding that a photo accompanying the post ”is a testament to what it feels like to belong for the very first time in your life.”

During an interview at home with her mother, her father, Shawn Sullivan, and her younger brother, Finn, Zoe was unequivocal about Collingswood field hockey.

“I love it,” she said. “I’m doing it next year.”

Brooks, a 46-year-old graphic designer, knows the feeling: She played field hockey at Riverside High School in the early 1990s and set a record for most recorded shutouts. “I love the community around sports,” she said.

After Zoe didn’t make the cheerleading squad, Collingswood coach Val Dayton suggested she try field hockey. Zoe was eager to sign up, and Brooks and her husband were pleased, but cautious.

“Field hockey is very fast-moving, and we thought it might be too dangerous for her,” Brooks said. “But we had great faith in the coaches. Zoe got out there and worked her hardest. I was so proud of her.”

Said Shawn, 47, a digital communications professional: “They put her on the field, and she played. It was really cool. I enjoyed watching her out there.

“We wanted Zoe to be contributing, just like anybody else on the team,” he said. “The first time I saw her disrupt a play and help the whole team, she was just Zoe, the girl on the team, not Zoe, the girl who has Down syndrome. People were yelling her name like they yell anybody else’s name. It was awesome.”

Zoe said what she enjoyed most about playing field hockey was “being with my friends from my grade and other grade levels,” as well as “trying to get the ball” and “stealing the ball” from opposing team members.

Being on the team, she said, “is happy to me.”

Dayton played field hockey for Collingswood herself and has coached the sport for 25 years there, including 17 years as head coach. During the season that just ended, she worked with junior varsity coach Nicole Valianti and volunteer coach Kate Hughes.

“Success does not necessarily mean winning a championship,” said Dayton. “A good high school team has a sense of togetherness and community, of belonging and acceptance, and just learning to get along and value each other.

“From the beginning, Zoe was all in,” she said. “I’m amazed at how far she came with her individual skills, how hard she hits the ball now, how she maneuvers the stick, and does pulls with the stick.

“As much as Zoe got out of the season, I really think the rest of the team benefitted as well. They fell in love with Zoe. They enjoyed being around her. She was somebody they went to school with and maybe had never taken the time or gotten the opportunity to get to know. And then they got that opportunity.”

Sunny King, a 16-year-old junior who plays on the junior varsity squad, had known Zoe since their time together at Zane North elementary school.

“I have a cousin who has Down syndrome, and I was very happy Zoe joined the team,” she said. “Zoe’s not the only person in our school who has a disability, and I think people my age have grown up knowing things about people with disabilities, and wanting to learn more.”

Other girls on Collingswood’s junior varsity and varsity field hockey teams had played regularly since elementary school, and some played on competitive club teams as well. But Zoe had played field hockey only as a little girl, and then, only briefly.

By season’s end, however, “she knew exactly where to be and what to do at all times,” said King.

“Not everyone is at the same skills level, but we’re all able to play the game together and get along and have a good time,” she said. “There’s a bond we all have.”

Lily Bataloni, a 16-year-old junior on the varsity squad, had not gotten a chance to meet Zoe until they became teammates.

Zoe and the team “definitely just clicked,” said Bataloni. “We showed her that she is one of us, that we’re going to cheer for her, and she got really comfortable with us.

“Our connection with her was probably one of the best things I’ve ever seen,” Bataloni said.

“We took her in as a sister.”

One in every 691 babies born in the United States in any given year has Down syndrome, according to the National Down Syndrome Society. The condition is caused by a chromosomal abnormality; the impact can vary, but the syndrome often includes cognitive, speech, and cardiac difficulties.

Zoe was born full term at Cooper University Hospital in Camden on Feb. 13, 2006, but her heart was not beating and she did not breathe on her own for 18 minutes. Cooper doctors revived and stabilized her, and she was transferred to Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, where she underwent an experimental treatment to cool and protect her brain.

She came home 51 days later to a town ready to welcome and support her. A bulletin board inside the Groove Ground coffee shop on Haddon Avenue had been posting regular updates on her progress, and friends as well as strangers — including some of Shawn’s fellow PATCO passengers — bought groceries and brought food.

“The community embraced her from day one,” said Brooks.

Zoe grew up attending Collingswood public schools and has been active in Special Olympics sports, as well as with the South Jersey Storm “Twisters CheerAbilities Team.” She and her family also are regular participants in the annual BUDS (Bringing up Down Syndrome) Buddy Walk; Zoe’s field hockey teammates showed up en masse for the Oct. 3 walk at Washington Lake Park in Washington Township.

Brooks credited the coaches with helping the team overcome any challenges related to including an athlete with disabilities.

“They talked to the girls about what Down syndrome is, and also helped the girls understand how to provide Zoe with support, like making sure she had her gear ready and got on the bus on time,” said Brooks. “The coaches allowed Zoe to do her best without comparing her to other girls on the team.”

Inevitably, what Brooks called “bumps in the road,” mostly having to do with communication, did occur.

Zoe neither understood nor reacted well one day at practice when Dayton found her team unfocused and had them run sprints. On another occasion, Zoe became confused by the cacophony of voices when a group of her teammates shouted at her to leave the field so another player could be her substitute.

And teammates, as well as others, sometimes find it difficult to understand what Zoe is saying, said her mother.

Generally, however, when Zoe is “on the field or on the court, she doesn’t need to verbalize,” Brooks said.

“Her actions become her communication.”

When a reporter asked if playing field hockey is stressful, Zoe answered: “Not for me!”

“I told you she has a lot of confidence,” said Brooks.

Where does that confidence come from? the reporter asked.

Zoe pointed to her head.

“It’s all up in here.”