Michelle Runcieman-Smeaton will leave a legacy of sporting passion for pupils with disabilities and special needs at Sunnyside Academy in Middlesbrough after 15 years of participating in Panathlon competitions.

Michelle was instrumental in engaging children from the school’s deaf and hearing impairment base in Panathlon’s competitions across the North East. They have been so successful that the school has had to buy two new cabinets to showcase the many trophies won over the years!

The Easter holidays marked the end of Michelle’s last term as Teacher of the Deaf and SEND PE Coordinator at Sunnyside after 18 years. She leaves to become a peripatetic teacher of the deaf across the north east region.

It was Michelle who first connected with Panathlon as she saw the potential for hearing and visually-impaired pupils being given the opportunity to take part in sport that they were otherwise denied.

These pupils have thrived through Panathlon’s programme of events, winning local, county and regional winner’s trophies in boccia, 10-pin bowling, new-age kurling, multisports, football and swimming over the years – and although she’ll be greatly missed, Michelle’s departure certainly won’t stop them entering many more of our competitions in the future. 

Boccia has been a particularly popular sport among the school’s deaf pupils. They have won Panathlon Tyne & Wear and North East regional trophies in recent years.

“Before we joined the Panathlon events, our children didn’t know how to play boccia and had never even seen the sport,” says Michelle. “It’s something they have done really, really well with. They love meeting other deaf children and trying something they’ve not tried before.

“What I like about boccia is how it encourages them to work as a team. That really builds their confidence. In other team sports they [individual pupils] try to be the best, but boccia involves true teamwork and communication. It’s amazing that some children aren’t very sporty, but they are really good at boccia. It’s a real lightbulb moment for some of the teachers.

“It’s something they can really work towards. When they receive medals and certificates, they are so proud to go up in assembly and talk about how they won them.”

Michelle explains that there was very limited sports provision before they connected with Panathlon, apart from an annual deaf tennis event. But attending Panthlons has allowed pupils to overcome everyday barriers to accessing sport. It has also had a positive ripple effect on the school environment. Sunnyside now has its own boccia and new-age kurling sets and runs lunchtime clubs in both.

Panathlon is now included in other areas of the curriculum, with pupils writing about their achievements and experiences at our competitions in English classes. 

Most of all, Panathlon’s adapted sporting activities and events have allowed the deaf and visually-impaired pupils freedom to excel when so often they hit barriers due to their disabilities.

“For many of our SEND children, sport has become their favourite activity,” says Michelle. “In other areas, like maths and English, their deafness might not allow them to achieve as they otherwise might be able to. 

“Sport is that level playing field where there’s not too much language involved, they copy what others are doing, learn quickly and give it 100%. Sport is really important for your health and wellbeing and these good habits will carry on into adulthood.”

Panathlon’s Chief Operating Officer, Tony Waymouth, paid tribute to Michelle’s impact: “Michelle was a pioneer in deaf school sport in those early years and she leaves a legacy for deaf children not just at Sunnyside but across the north east. We hope to continue to enrich young lives and continue our wonderful relationship with her in her new post. Thank you for everything!”