Athlete Goes the Distance in Memory of Her Father

By Bruce Yentes; Reprinted with Permission of The Pantagraph

It was a “golden moment” all the way around, from the rays of sunshine bathing the Illinois State University track and field facility to the glistening winner’s medallion that hung from the neck of 16-year-old Rachel McGrew of Downs.

Shining brightest, however, was the light of love and an innate passion for the games reflected in the beaming faces of nearly 4,000 athletes at the Special Olympics Illinois Summer Games.

2013SG-MH0447-webMcGrew’s love for her late father, Buddy, spurred her to “go the extra mile,” doubling her usual race distance in remembrance of him.

While normally competing in the 200-meter run, Rachel claimed her medal in the 400 after knocking a full minute off an earlier time.

Just prior to the start of the race, as a means of motivation, Rachel’s mother, Sandra, got Rachel’s attention and pointed toward the sky.

“Before her dad died, he told her she could always find him in the sunshine,” Sandra McGrew said. “That’s when he would be there for her. Buddy suffered from cancer and we had him at home the whole time. It was a joint effort of all of us helping to take care of him.

“(Rachel) was so good about going in and just sitting on the bed with him and talking about her day. She can talk a blue streak. The closeness we all got to share in, probably the worst time of our life, made it not as bad as it could have been.”

“She got the rest of us through it. She has such faith, it humbles you and teaches you that life is so precious. We’re so lucky to have her,” said Sandra McGrew.

The family so believes in the power of Special Olympics that they asked that any donations made in Buddy’s memory be made to Tri-Valley Special Olympics. “Bud’s putting on a party this year at Summer Games,” said Sandra with tears in her eyes.

Rachel McGrew's brother, Wesley, and mother, Sandra, cheer her on at Summer Games.
Rachel McGrew’s brother, Wesley, and mother, Sandra, cheer her on at Summer Games.

Buddy McGrew’s death on March 3 marked the second time in the past year that Rachel, a student at Tri-Valley High School, has had to deal with the loss of someone close to her. Brittany Woods, her best friend, died in June 2012.

Rachel has battled through the sadness and grief while continuing to be a strong contributor to her Tri-Valley Special Olympics team.

Glenda Walsh, Rachel’s track coach in the Tri-Valley program, said she wasn’t surprised to see Rachel claim a medal at Summer Games.

“She’s just been working hard,” Walsh said. “It’s just really her determination in doing this for her dad. That’s really been her drive.”

Sandra McGrew says the road to the Summer Games medal included some arm-twisting from Walsh that got her family involved in the program when Rachel was at Tri-Valley Elementary School.

“We didn’t know much about it at that point,” Sandra McGrew said. “You’re still kind of sheltering that little (then) 8-year-old and not wanting her to have to face the big world. We finally let go enough and Glenda then became the best friend my daughter’s ever had.”

Walsh was beaming alongside Sandra McGrew, both taking pictures, when Rachel accepted her medal during an awards ceremony.

“It was very exciting to watch (Rachel) do that,” Sandra McGrew said. “She aspires every year to try to win a gold medal, but is just as happy with a ribbon. She knows that it’s all about the competition and not winning and losing. But it will be hanging up on her bedpost as soon as we get home.”

Michele Evans Henson, SOILL Director of Communications, also contributed to this story.