The Chicago Fire and Special Olympics Illinois introduced on April 3 members of the inaugural Unified Soccer All-Star team, a squad composed of Illinois-based teens with and without intellectual disabilities.
Selected were Special Olympics Illinois athlete Joshua Banty and Unified Partner Andy Torres of School District 23; athletes Mackenzie Carlson and Nathan Simmons and Partner Brenna Poncin of Normal Community West High School; athlete Adam Letcher and Partner Gerardo Valencia of Hoffman Estates High School; athlete Ryan McDonough of Waubonsie Valley High School; and athlete Warren Richards and Partner Jared Joekstra of Homewood-Flossmoor High School.
Over the next four months, the team will train together in preparation for a matchup with Special Olympics Oregon, which will be held in conjunction with the Chicago Fire First Team’s Aug. 7 road match at Portland Timbers.
With more than half a million participants worldwide, Unified Sports initiatives seek to break down stereotypes in a fun and empowering athletic environment. Unified Sports soccer matches feature 5 a side competition, with each side represented by three athletes and two Partners.
“Special Olympics Illinois is grateful to the Chicago Fire Soccer Club for allowing our athletes the opportunity to compete on the same stage as their professional athletes,” said Jen Marcello, Director of Young Athletes with Special Olympics Illinois. “Through the Unified Soccer All-Star Team we are thrilled to showcase the abilities of athletes both with and without intellectual disabilities and strive to drive home the importance of sportsmanship, respect and teamwork.”
On March 28, candidates from around Chicagoland and Central Illinois turned out to The PrivateBank Fire Pitch to participate in tryouts. Athletes were put through their paces by a coaching staff comprised of Paul Cadwell, Chicago Fire Director of Soccer and Team Development, and Special Olympics Unified Coaches David Dore of Homewood-Flossmoor High School and Julie Phelan of Hoffman Estates High School.
Following tryouts, the coaching staff named a team of six athletes and four Partners, who came together for their first official practice April 11 at Toyota Park. The group will receive training from Fire players and coaches as well as Special Olympics instructors throughout their preparations.
In addition to their August road trip to Portland, the Unified Sports team also will be recognized in a special send-off event during the Fire’s June 24 home match against D.C. United.
On Feb. 19, Daniel Smrokowski, 26, of LaGrange spoke at the 2015 Learning Disabilities Association Conference at the Hilton Chicago Hotel. Daniel was born a ‘micro-premie’ and was diagnosed with learning disabilities and a speech disorder early in his life.
He has dealt with a lot of developmental challenges his whole life, but has never let these challenges stand in the way of his goals and his dreams. Daniel graduated from Roosevelt University, Chicago, in 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism and was the recipient of the 2012 Matthew Freeman Award for Social Justice for his continuing efforts via media and reporting to give people with disabilities a voice.
While in college, Daniel developed his own podcast called Special Chronicles. The purpose of the podcasts was to give a voice and respect to people with a disability. He started podcasting in 2008 while at Roosevelt University as a way to inform and inspire listeners about people with special needs. Since then, “Special Chronicles” has grown to be a non-profit company with a large listener base and broad support group. Podcasting has allowed Daniel to reach out to a global community of listeners.
Over the past six years, through his speeches as a Global Messenger (ambassador for Special Olympics) and through his writings and podcasts, Daniel has highlighted various significant topics including disability awareness and education for people with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and learning disabilities. He has done numerous speeches and podcasts on the “R-word” and respect, telling his own story of bullying and challenging times during his childhood.
Daniel has reached out to Special Olympics leadership such as Tim Shriver, Chairman of Special Olympics; Janet Froetscher, CEO of Special Olympics; Rob Johnson, CBS-2 Chicago; Caroline Shriver and many other community advocates, leaders and experts on individuals with a disability. Additionally, Daniel has interviewed countless individuals with varying special needs, giving them a chance to share their story and inspire others through their determination and perseverance. To learn more about Daniel and listen or subscribe to his podcasts, visit his website – specialchronicles.com.
Malik Daniel and Nathaniel Clark have participated in Special Olympics Illinois since they were in elementary school. Nearly 8 years later, Malik, a junior, and Nathaniel, a senior at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Chicago, will compete in snowshoeing at the 2015 Special Olympics Illinois Winter Games.
This is the first year Lindblom Eagles Head Coach Raymond Baker can remember having a snowshoeing team from the Englewood neighborhood. Baker has been involved with Special Olympics for 10 years and has been head coach at Lindblom for 4 of those.
“My athletes and I were looking to get involved in Special Olympics winter sports and snowshoeing seemed to be the most approachable,” Baker said. “We were lucky enough to get a pair of snowshoes donated to use from a fellow teacher/coach and the rest is history.”
Lindblom Academy sent 7 athletes, including Malik Daniel and Nathaniel Clark, to the Chicago snowshoeing qualifier in December
This year, seven Lindblom athletes competed in the snowshoe qualifier on Dec. 13 at Mann Park.
Both Malik and Nathaniel had previously found success competing in athletics for Special Olympics, and Baker feels the track events lent themselves to a natural progression into snowshoeing. “They had never seen snowshoeing as a sport before,” Baker explained. “I’m very proud of what both they both have accomplished to advance to Winter Games.”
The boys also compete on the Lindblom Eagles basketball team that recently qualified for the State Basketball Tournament in Normal in March.
Malik and Nathaniel anxiously awaited Winter Games, where they joined nearly 400 athletes from across the state in Galena for competition, festivities and fun Feb. 3 to 5. Malik received a gold medal and Nathaniel a 6th place ribbon in the 100-meter snowshoe race.
“I am excited for Winter Games,” Nathaniel said before heading to Galena. “I am looking forward to seeing all of my friends!”
The Chicago Fire Soccer Club and Special Olympics Illinois announced a partnership to create a Unified Sports soccer team. Unified Sports joins athletes both with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team to promote social inclusion through shared training and competition exercises with the principle that training and playing together is the quickest path to friendship and understanding.
“We’re excited to expand our partnership with Special Olympics Illinois and create a Unified Fire team,” said Chicago Fire Senior Director of Community Relations Jessica Yavitz. “This is a great opportunity to leverage the Fire’s reach in the Chicagoland community to raise awareness of the programming available to athletes with special needs while promoting respect, inclusion and acceptance of all people. We’re pleased to be able to offer these athletes a real ‘pro’ experience and are looking forward to the match against the Special Olympics Oregon team in August.”
Created with the goal of bringing people together, Special Olympics Unified Sports teams have more than half a million participants worldwide who work together break down stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities.
Tryouts for the Special Olympics Illinois team will be held in the spring. In addition to receiving training and coaching instruction from Fire players and coaches, the team will be honored at Toyota Park prior to the Fire’s match against Eastern Conference rivals D.C. United on June 24. Athletes, partners and coaches interested in being a part of this Unified soccer team must submit applications to Jen Marcello – deadline for coaches to apply is Feb. 27 and deadline for athletes and partners is March 6. Download athlete/partner or coach application forms.
“Special Olympics Illinois is thrilled to form this partnership with the Chicago Fire Soccer Club,” says Dave Breen, President & CEO of Special Olympics Illinois. “This is incredible opportunity for our athletes and Unified Partners to travel and meet competitors from other states. We are grateful to the Chicago Fire Soccer Club for their help in creating awareness for Unified Sports and in promoting social inclusion through sports training and competition experiences.”
The Special Olympics Illinois team will travel to take on the Special Olympics Oregon team in a Unified Sports soccer match in conjunction with the Fire first team’s match against the Portland Timbers at Providence Park on Aug. 7.
On Oct. 22, the United Center played host to student athletes, coaches, healthcare professionals and volunteers throughout Chicago. They were all there for the 16th Annual Chicago MedFest.
Between 7 a.m. and noon that day, more than 1,600 current and aspiring Special Olympics Illinois athletes, drawn from Chicago Public Schools and other partnering agencies, received free sports physicals from Advocate Medical Group professionals. Medical clearance is required by Special Olympics to guarantee athlete safety, and receiving this physical exam clears athletes to participate in the program for two years.
Simply put, MedFest provides an easy, free and accessible point of entry for nearly half of the Special Olympics athletes in Chicago. View photos from MedFest.
MedFest is just one part of our total Healthy Athletes offerings. In addition to the sports physicals, 158 athletes had their vision evaluated through the Special Olympics Opening Eyes program. The Illinois College of Optometry staff offered vision screenings to these students and provided free onsite glasses if needed. Of the 158 students who had their vision tested, 20 percent of them were there for the free eye exam alone. This number is increasing as more athletes learn about the availability of this and other Healthy Athletes programs.
Athletes of all ages, ranging from early education to high school and older, were in attendance. For the third year in a row, we saw an increase in the number of Young Athletes who received a screening. This step is crucial to the success of their eventual transition into the traditional Special Olympics program when they become age-eligible.
Those waiting for their physical had a front row seat to watch the Chicago Blackhawks practice. Players and coaches tossed pucks to several lucky athletes.
After they completed their physicals, these athletes were treated to a delicious boxed lunch, provided free of charge by Levy Restaurants. Special Olympics Illinois coordinated and covered the cost of transporting athletes to the United Center and returning them to their respective schools and agencies.
MedFest was created in an effort to involve more children and adults into the program as many athletes – for one reason or another – are not able to obtain this sports physical on their own. Healthy initiatives like these speak to the broader scope of the Special Olympics Illinois’ mission and to the many ways the organization positively influences the lives of its participants.
Thank you to Advocate Medical Group, United Center and Levy Restaurants for their in-kind support of this event. Furthermore, MedFest is made possible through grant and volunteer support from BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois, BlueCross BlueShield Association, GE and Mattel, with additional grant support from the Stack Family Foundation. Without these partners, none of this would be possible.