Tim McDonough comes up the stairs from the basement wearing his
blue and white warm-up suit.
Today, he will compete in the 50-meter run and the standing long
He smiles when his mother greets him. But the athlete is
understandably nervous and paces in the kitchen area.
His parents, his grandparents and his brother are all busy
fixing and eating breakfast, packing lunch and readying the car for
what is expected to be a daylong trip from their Norridge Park
neighborhood home to the track and field competition in Mount
He has been through this for four years now - hours of training,
practicing and other competitions are behind him.
But on this Sunday in late April, 11-year-old Tim is more than
just an athlete; he is also a key part of the opening ceremonies
for the Area 18 Spring Games of the Special Olympics Illinois.
"I get to carry the torch," he says. He will be one of four
athletes, chosen by lottery to carry it into the stadium - an
Olympic and a Special Olympic tradition.
Tim is a member of a small team, the "Have Dreams!" group -
about six of them will take part in the athletes parade into the
stadium at Mount Prospect High School.
They will join 720 other athletes, ranging in age from 8 to 80,
competing for the gold in the 25 track and field events.
All will stand in the stadium, face their families and friends
and recite the Special Olympics athlete oath before the
competition: "Let me win but if I cannot win, let me be brave in
It's a pledge that literally millions of Special Olympians have
taken since 1968 when Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded the
organization in 1968 for people who face challenges that go way
beyond athletic competition.
"To compete, all of the athletes have to have been determined to
have some form of intellectual disability," explains Dan Connelly,
area director for area 18 Special Olympics Illinois, which covers
all of the northern suburban Cook County.
"These are people who too often are told what they can't do,"
Connelly says. "But here it's all about what they can do. … Sport
is a great vehicle for change and the program is transforming their
lives because it is putting them on the same common base with their
It will be a feel good day. Hundreds of volunteers and family
members will gather to support these athletes.
And at the end of it, Tim will take home two medals. It won't be
enough for him to move on to the next level of competition in the
Special Olympics but it make him smile and he will wear them
But not everyone believes that it is the best thing for these
athletes. There is a body of research, both pro and con, on the
Special Olympics. And while some of it comes out on the same side
as Connelly, some of it criticizes the group for stigmatizing and
segregating people with disabilities, rather than mainstreaming the
In March 2009, the controversy bubbled up anew when President
Barack Obama made an off-handed remark on the Jay Leno Show, when
he spoke in a self-deprecating way about his bowling skills: "It
was like the Special Olympics or something."
An editorial summing up the controversy and advocating for
integrated recreational facilities was published shortly after the
President's remark in the journal "Research & Practice for
Persons with Disabilities," saying: "The Special Olympics
perpetuates the belief that there are two classes of people,
"normal" and "disabled" - and that people with disabilities need a
recreation program different from that provided those without
But if you ask Tim's mother, Chris McDonough, there is no
debate: "Special Olympics has given my son confidence and changed
his life. It gives him his time to compete and be the one we are
all cheering for. It is really a great program."
Each year, McDonough and her husband Patrick, a Chicago police
officer, hold a fundraiser for the organization that trains their
son for the games, Have Dreams. That group focuses on children such
as Tim, who have been diagnosed with autism. Some of those athletes
have profound issues with communication and integration into
society, others, have higher levels of functioning.
To Connelly, these athletes are not only learning sports,
"they're learning team work and self esteem and everything that
goes along with training."
For the Have Dreams team, that is clear when they meet each
Saturday morning in the gym at Park School, 828 Main St. in
Head coach David Peterson and his wife, Betsy Peterson,
integrate exercise, such as running, walking, with group lessons on
healthy eating, hygiene and helping the athletes understand an
Some of the athletes talk. Some don't speak at all. But all of
them work hard at basketball, jumping, running and throwing. All of
them are treated with respect by the coaches and the many volunteer
Northwestern University students, who come each week.
"We think it's a great experience for all of us," Peterson
And the experience doesn't end with the Mount Prospect
The winners would go on to the state competition at Illinois
State University in June. And while Tim has made it there in past
years, today he will take two silver medals. But he will never
forget this year's competition, because he will soon find out that
he not only is one of four carrying the torch. But he is the
athlete, who will light the ceremonial cauldron. Mount Prospect
police officer Brent Murray will help Timmy dip the torch into the
sauce to start the games. And while Timmy will love it when he
talks about it later. The whoosh of the lighting will scare him and
he will run down the stairs.
But all that is later today. For right now, the family has to
get out the door.
Chris McDonough says to her son. "Timmy, why don't you get your
shoes on and you can help me get the car."
Susy Schultz is the former editor of Chicago Parent magazine and is now teaching journalism to the next generation at Columbia College Chicago.
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