The 2019 Little City Special Olympics team is proof that big things can come in small packages.
Whether it is the big-time strength of Jimmy S. – who swept his powerlifting competition to take home four gold medals, the big heart of Simone who helped a first-time Summer Games athlete feel safe instead of nervous or the impressive haul of 37 medals despite a team of only 18 athletes, Little City did big things at the 2019 Illinois Special Olympics Summer Games.
In all, the team won 18 gold, 11 silver and eight bronze medals.
The competition, held on the weekend of June 7 in Bloomington, had more than 4,000 athletes from around the state gather to compete in swimming, track and field, gymnastics, soccer, powerlifting and bocce.
Head coach Tim Lahart said it was a memorable year for the group, in part because of the unique accomplishments. Little City had one of its youngest competitors ever in Wyatt E. and oldest competitors ever in Jerry R., win gold medals while first timers Cindy M. and Anthony L. also took home golds.
“They’re going to get better and that’s the thing. Even better than the medals, is seeing the improvement in the athletes because if you’re in the same spot for years, what’s the point?” Tim said. “If you’re not improving then you’re just showing up. But we had a lot of improvement this year, a lot of personal records and you could see that throughout our team.”
The work ethic and competitive level was clear to see for Renee Watts, Little City’s Director of Human Resources, who went down to the state competition to coach for a third year in a row.
Renee, who coaches Ciara and Simone on the powerlifting team, said she saw firsthand how seriously the athletes took the competition and how determined they were to overcome adversity. In powerlifting, athletes can get up to three lifts to register their highest mark if their first lift hits the minimum qualifying number.
Ciara, who is usually as consistent as it gets, got nervous before her first lift and was unable to perform. With the first lift forfeited, Renee had to change her initial plan of using the first lift for qualifying, second lift to challenge Ciara and third lift to set a personal record. But Ciara adapted on the fly, easily qualifying with one lift and tying her personal record and winning the gold with her second lift.
“They really do compete, it’s not given to them. They have to work to get it,” Renee said. “They may come home with a lot of medals but no one should ever interpret that as a participation trophy. They are truly winning. Like any competition, there are unexpected challenges and these athletes have to adapt.”
That ability to overcome challenges was also seen on the bocce field where Anthony survived not just one close call, but a close call in almost every single game on his way to the gold medal. The direct head-to-head competitive nature of bocce makes each game unpredictable and Anthony found himself in neck-and-neck games throughout his entire run.
Little City coach Maggie Brennan said she wasn’t even sure if he would make it out of his first match.
“Honestly, Anthony’s bocce matches were insane,” Maggie said. “His very first match started 2-2, then 3-3 then 4-4 and it ended up going over 40 minutes. He kept us on our toes the whole time but he was so happy when he finally won the gold.”
But the Special Olympics isn’t only about what happens in competition. One of the positives of having a smaller group this year was the team could stay together and watch and support each other more often during events.
Little City coach Malorie Solus said no one embodied the spirit of the weekend more than Wyatt. Wyatt, who lives on Little City’s campus and attends the ChildBridge Center for Education, was one of the younger competitors at the Games and his childlike wonder was contagious.
Whether it was walking in the Opening Ceremony, taking pictures with Spider-Man, riding in a “limo bus,” winning a gold medal in the softball throw or dancing at the post-event party, Wyatt never stopped smiling.
“You could tell it was one of the best weekends of his entire life,” Malorie said. “Some people have gone so often it becomes a little normal, but Wyatt didn’t take anything for granted. He would stop to show his medal to everyone so often we’d have to keep telling him to keep up with the group.”
After another successful Summer Games, Tim already has nine post-it notes hanging in his office with numbers on athletes and plans on how to get them to improve. But while his eye is on the future as always, he said this year’s competition was more reflective for him than usual.
Seeing this group of 18 athletes perform and come together as they did made him appreciate the work more than ever.
“I have rough edges and can be very blunt with people but I find when I am coaching my athletes, they give me the ability to be the best version of myself,” Tim said. “I’ve always thought about it as ‘what am I doing for them’ but I’ve realized, especially this year, it’s more about what they do for me. They definitely make me the best version of myself. I have the best job at Little City.”