Nearly 4,000 athletes came together this week for the Special Olympics Spring Games – an event that inspires joy, confidence and fulfillment through the power of sports.
As has become tradition, Opening Ceremonies for the Games were held at Soldier Field and included the Parade of Athletes – a dramatic walk that mirrors the Parade of Nations familiar from the Olympic Games. More than half of the athletes participating were CPS students who represented nearly 80 of the District's schools.
"As always, we are proud to have so many of our athletes be a part of these Games," said Pam Munizzi, Special Olympics Coordinator for CPS. "We've seen increased participation in Special Olympics this year, with new programs developing and others being rekindled at several schools. It's very exciting, as this is a wonderful experience for our students."
Performers at this year's Opening Ceremonies included the Drum Line from Ray Graham High School, a percussion ensemble made up entirely of students with special needs, and a dance troupe from Beidler Elementary who will also be entertaining crowds at Olympic Town throughout the week. CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett offered some encouraging words to the athletes, as did celebrity guest Ed Farmer, a former player and current broadcaster for the Chicago White Sox.
The honor of lighting this year's Olympic torch was given to Norwood Park Elementary School, which was the recipient of the 2014 Spirit Award.
"This award goes to a group of athletes who truly embodies what Special Olympics is all about," said Munizzi. "Though their program is just a few years old, Norwood Park has over 50 athletes participating in more than 20 state and local competitions, including elite contest such as alpine skiing."
Another elite team participating in this year's Games is Coonley High School, who recently received a $17,000 donation from Blue Cross Blue Shield to enhance their Special Olympics program.
"We're thrilled," said Sheila Barrett, Special Olympics Coach at Coonley. "This is going to help us grow our program and do so many of the things we've wanted to do."
Each year, the employees of Blue Cross Blue Shield raise money to be donated to an active Special Olympics program in a park or school. The funds are used to offset expenses connected with running a successful program, including uniforms, equipment, transportation, and other costs that can present a challenge to coaches and their athletes.
"We're elated for Coonley and for all Special Olympics programs to receive this kind of recognition," said Munizzi. "This is a very active program, with wonderful athletes, coaches and team supports. Receiving this grant benefits not only Coonley, but all of us."
The 2014 Spring Games will run throughout the week, with track and field events such as meter-dashes, motorized and non-motorized wheelchair races, and long jumps. All athletes will receive participation ribbons, with the top three performers earning the traditional gold, silver and bronze medals. All gold medal winners will advance to the state competition to be held this June.
"We always send a strong CPS contingent downstate," said Munizzi, "and our main sponsor, Special Children's Charities, is largely responsible for making that happen."
When not competing, athletes fill the stands alongside their coaches, families and friends, cheering on their fellow Olympians and enjoying the atmosphere of the Games. Their experience also includes time in Olympic Town, which has music and other entertainment and is made to feel like an authentic Olympic Village.
"By participating in these Games, our athletes learn discipline, commitment and sportsmanship," said Munizzi. "Special Olympics gives them the chance to learn new skills, build confidence and create friendships that will last a lifetime."