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 jump.
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 Prospect.
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 the attempt.”
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 peers.”
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 proudly.
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 athletes.
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 disabilities.”
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 Evanston.
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 active lifestyle.
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 said.
And the experience doesn’t end with the Mount Prospect competition.
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.”