West Orange runner blazes trail in college

Sebastian DeSimone sets national inclusivity precedent

Sebastian DeSimone, a 2021 West Orange High School graduate, received a waiver to run track at Gwynedd Mercy University, despite not fulfilling the NCAA requirement that athletes be enrolled in degree-conferring programs.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange High School Class of 2021 alumnus Sebastian DeSimone is not only enjoying his college experience at Gwynedd Mercy University, in Gwynedd Valley, Pa., 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, where he was 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 WOHS 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.”

“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,” said Sebastian DeSimone’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.” 

Once he began attending GMU, he wanted to continue track. The National Collegiate Athletic Association requirements for students like Sebastian DeSimone disallowed his participation, since he was not a full-time student in a degree-bearing program. The integrated studies program for students with intellectual disabilities that he is enrolled in confers certificates not degrees.

After Sebastian DeSimone, his mother and Gwynedd Mercy’s director of athletics argued DeSimone’s case, 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 such as Sebastian DeSimone 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.

“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 Joanne 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.” 

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 with programs for students with intellectual disabilities, 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 DeSimone. “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!”

Photo Courtesy of Cynthia Cumming