CPS swelled with pride this month as Morgan Park High School alum Aja Evans earned a bronze medal for her bobsled performance in Sochi. But she’s not the only member of the CPS family to have earned Olympic medals this month.
On February 6, five students from Northside Learning Center received gold medals in the snowshoe competition at the Special Olympics State Championships in Galena, Illinois. Ashley F. won the gold in the individual 50 meters, while the team of Jorge H., Derek M., Joshua W., and Kendul W. took home gold in the 4 x 100 meter relay.
“I was so happy for our students to get to participate in something like this,” said Shahenaz (Shahe) Abdelrahim, PE teacher and Special Olympics coach at Northside Learning Center. “They’re so proud of themselves. They’ll be wearing their medals everywhere they go for weeks.”
A Special Olympics coach for eight years, Shahe runs not only the snowshoe event, but the girls’ basketball, soccer, track and softball programs at Northside.
“I’ve always been a sports person,” she said, “and I’m a big advocate of students with special needs getting to participate in the same sporting events as their non-disabled peers.”
Shahe began training her snowshoe team in the fall, which meant learning to run not in snow, but on grass. Other challenges included learning to put on, lace and tie the large, unwieldy snowshoes.
“A lot of our students struggle with fine motor skills like lacing and tying, but as coaches, we’re not allowed to help them while they’re competing,” said Shahe. “But no matter how many times they fall, my athletes always get back up.”
After qualifying for the State competition late last year, the team traveled to Galena in early February, eager both for the opportunity to win and the chance to experience a road trip.
“They love the hotel, the events, and the sense of independence that a trip like this provides,” said Shahe. “Two of them even arrived at school an hour early on the day we left, just to be sure they wouldn’t miss the bus.”
The three-day experience began with Special Olympics athletes from throughout Illinois parading through downtown Galena as part of the opening ceremonies.
“It feels like the entire town turns out for our kids,” said Shahe. “They stand along the streets cheering them and giving high fives, and you can see how proud it makes the athletes feel.”
On the day of the competition, conditions were less than ideal, with snow and sub-zero wind chills making racing a challenge. But the Northside students endured, turning in some of their best performances of the season.
“We didn’t know how well they’d done until the end, but they kept saying to me that they’d run really fast and done their best,” said Shahe.
When all of the races were complete, the Galena Police Department lined the top performers up in front of a large Special Olympics banner and presented them with their medals.
“My athletes had the biggest smiles on their faces,” said Shahe. “But they were just as enthusiastic cheering for the other teams, because they know that good sportsmanship is our number one rule.”
Several of the Northside athletes will also compete in the Special Olympics Spring Games, which is the primary competition season for CPS students.
“We are so proud of our athletes from Northside Learning Center on their wonderful accomplishment,” said Pam Munizzi, Special Olympics Coordinator for CPS. “Special Olympics is an amazing experience for so many of our students, and for the coaches like Shahe who’ve worked hard to help these athletes achieve their goals.”