by Rand Kindred
There were roughly 400 athletes competing Saturday, December 4, in the Special Olympics Illinois State Bowling Tournament at Peoria’s Landmark Lanes. Each had a story unique to them.
Amid this mass of heart-warming tales, played out in three shifts on Landmark’s 50 lanes, were two of the most inspiring stories you will find.
One belonged to Mike Brennan, a 58-year-old from Monmouth whose journey includes a broken neck and five cervical spine surgeries. Yet, there he was, ambulating with his walker and competing in ramp bowling for the Warren County Falcons.
“I had 89 the first game, 91 the second game,” Brennan said, a bronze medal draped over his University of Iowa sweatshirt. “I’m pretty happy. Third place is pretty good.”
Another dose of inspiration came courtesy of Aldon Marley, a Lawrenceville man who, along with his wife, Kelly, saw staffing and financial shortages three years ago eliminate bowling as a sport for the Lawrence/Crawford Association for Exceptional Citizens (L/CAEC).
They love bowling. Their team was gone, but another formed. They joined forces with Debbie Mikeworth and her daughter, Stephanie — Kelly’s sister and niece. They filled out the forms necessary for certification as Class A Coaches so Aldon and Kelly could continue to compete in bowling.
“We don’t have a really big team, but I have a little team,” Aldon said, smiling. “I’ve got my own team right here. A family team.”
Athletes and coaches with the Warren County Falcons consider Mike Brennan to be family. He has been participating in Special Olympics events for 51 years.
He competed successfully in basketball, volleyball and athletics (track and field) early on, but suffered a broken neck in the late 1980s. The five surgeries followed and Brennan now competes in ramp bowling and the assisted walk in track. He will tell you he “retired” from the other sports.
Asked if he encourages others to participate in Special Olympics competition, he said, “Yeah, I try to. It’s hard work. It’s pretty fun.”
Deb Farris has seen Brennan’s impact on teammates, calling him “a very good influence.”
“He smiles all the time. He has a good outlook on things,” said Farris, a coach with Warren County. “No matter how they are dealing with anything, he’s right there. He’ll pat you on the back.
“You know, a lot of them will say, ‘Oh, I can’t do this.’ I want to say, ‘Look at Mike. He can do anything and you can, too.’”
That “can do” spirit exists in Aldon and Kelly Marley as well. They met at the L/CAEC agency in Lawrenceville and among their early activities together was a bowling event in Effingham.
“I can tell you what color shirts we had on … orange ones,” Aldon said proudly.
“Man, he’s blowing my mind,” Kelly said.
Engaged on Friday the 13th and married for 10 and a half years, they also have participated in Special Olympics bocce ball, basketball and basketball skills.
Both took part in Region I bowling competition this year. Aldon advanced to state with a first-place finish. Kelly placed second, so was in Peoria to cheer on her husband along with Debbie and Stephanie.
Aldon rolled games of 131, 111 and 117, placing fifth in his division. Earlier, he choked up when asked about how family made his first state singles appearance possible.
“It’s emotional for him,” Kelly said.
The Marleys practice bowling in Vincennes, Indiana, making the short drive on their own from Lawrenceville. Often they are joined by Debbie, Stephanie and other relatives, so even practice is a family affair.
When it’s time to compete, Debbie offers this simple reminder:
“We always say, ‘Have fun. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose as long as you’re here having fun.’”
To support athletes like Mike and Aldon as well as the competitions they attend, please click here.