Running has not traditionally been the sport of choice for the Baxter family, so when Melani and Doug’s daughter Riley said she wanted to run the 800 meter race for Special Olympics Illinois, it came as a bit of a surprise. What made it even harder to believe is that Riley wanted to run 800 meters in spite of the fact that she was born with foot deformities, has had three surgeries on her left leg and one on her right, and she now wears orthotic braces on both for support. But when Doug explained to his daughter that 800 meters is a half of a mile, she responded by saying, “Dad, I can do it!” and, with that, Doug proudly boasts, “When she says, “I can do it,” I believe her.”
Doug Baxter isn’t a stranger to Special Olympics Illinois. For over 20 years, he worked at K Bowl in Effingham and has helped host SOILL Area 9 athletes for individual bowling events most of those years. “Bowling is our “family sport””, says Doug. “I have been bowling since my youth and even competed in college. Riley’s brother Carson is also an accomplished bowler already at the age of 8. Riley has been competing in Special Olympics bowling for 3 years, and regular youth bowling for 5 years.” It only seemed natural that bowling would be the competition of choice for Riley, and her dad shares her passion for that sport, too. “I am excited for her to compete in bowling, as I get to be her coach!” says Doug. “Coaching youth bowlers has been a privilege of mine for over 15 years. Bowling is a social sport that has built many lasting relationships in my life. I am happy to say that Riley has experienced that, as well.”
Social, indeed. Relationship-building is an integral part of Special Olympics, and Riley’s contagious spirit has lent her well in making new friends. When bowling in a sectional tournament earlier this year, she met another athlete named Sheridan. The two girls bonded and both were gold medalists at the sectional event which advanced them to the state finals in Peoria. “When we arrived in Peoria for the state tournament, Riley was greeted at the door by Sheridan and they picked up right where they had left off the last time (and only time, for that matter) they were together”says Doug. “Having special needs, Riley has struggled in her life to make friends. To see the interaction between those two was truly something special!”
Riley’s bond with peers can also be found through her interaction with classmates at Dieterich Elementary, where half of her school day is spent in special education and half in general education classes. Riley’s coach and Deiterich Elementary Special Education Teacher, Nichole Lidy, shares Riley’s and other student’s excitement for friends and sports. “Special Olympics has become something the students really look forward to” says Coach Lidy. “As students participate in Special Olympics, their eyes light up as they participate and receive their rewards. Watching the students get their medals makes it worthwhile as a coach.”
With her magnetic and caring personality, it is no surprise that Riley aspires to become a nurse or caretaker when she grows up. For now, though, she will continue to focus on making strikes and spares, and running 800 meters, and ALSO competing in the standing long jump, leg braces and all. Spirit? Absolutely. Drive? Without a doubt. And when asking Doug if Special Olympics Illinois has helped Riley continue to flourish and portray her talents, he responds, “Special Olympics has given her the ability to set and achieve goals. This, in turn, has given her the confidence to know that she can overcome any obstacle and achieve all her dreams.”
Continue to achieve those dreams, Riley. We know you can do it because you say you can.