By Randy Kindred
The temperature was in the low 80s, a comfortable day by mid-June standards. That didn’t stop Amy Anstlment from having chills on Day Two of the Special Olympics Illinois Summer Games.
“Every year I come here, I get goosebumps,” she said. “It’s wonderful to see how well they do. It’s great to be back!”
The biggest event on the Special Olympics Illinois calendar returned this past weekend for the first time since 2019. After two years lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, athletes, coaches and their families gave this year’s Summer Games a hearty group hug.
Anstlment has been a coach for the Dahlgren Purple Miracles for nearly 10 years. The past two were difficult with the cancellation of the Summer Games.
This year, she was able to share in the excitement of athletics gold medals for 8-year-olds Cassie and Waylon of the Purple Miracles.
“We really missed it,” Anstlment said. “It’s really good to be back and for them to be around all of the other athletes. It’s a good feeling.”
The weather contributed to the feel-good atmosphere. After soaring into the high 90s earlier in the week in Bloomington-Normal, the temperature cooled into the 80s. Mother Nature smiled down on the Games and a lot of people smiled with her.
“We’re ecstatic,” said Valerie Derossett of Belleville, whose 19-year-old grandsons, Jordan and Alex Derossett, competed in soccer. “They get so excited (for the Summer Games). We look forward to this. This is kind of like our mini vacation.”
The Derossett family could celebrate beyond the soccer competition. Jordan Derossett also played a big role in the Opening Ceremony at Illinois State University’s Hancock Stadium. He led his fellow athletes in the Special Olympics oath, and moments later, officially declared the Summer Games to be open.
Jordan and Alex compete for PTOEC, which stands for Parents Teachers Organization for Exceptional Children. PTOEC is in Region J, the host region for this year’s Summer Games.
“Hello, everybody. Nice seeing you all here tonight,” Jordan said as he stepped to the microphone. “All athletes, repeat after me. ‘Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.’”
It was enough to make a grandma proud.
“For him to be picked for this, that’s quite an honor,” Valerie Derossett said.
Among those repeating Jordan Derossett’s words was Brooke Ingram, a 28-year-old from Mattoon. She has competed in Special Olympics for nearly 20 years, initially in running events and the tennis ball throw. Since age 15, she has been confined to a wheelchair.
Her event this year was the 25-meter wheelchair race.
“I win with that a lot,” she said, smiling.
During the Friday night Opening Ceremony, a reporter wished her luck, saying, “I hope you win.”
“I will,” Ingram replied.
The next morning, she took second place and earned a silver medal. Still, the weekend was a big win for Ingram. Unlike the previous two years, she was in Normal and competing.
“Her opportunities to do things are so limited with her handicap and disability, she looks forward to this,” said Connie Scott, who is Ingram’s mom, caregiver and coach. “She looks forward to the Special Olympics at home, and then when she gets the gold (in regional competition), it’s all we can do to keep her contained.”
Her excitement was shared by 13-year-old Alex Perez of Brighton Park. A gold medal hanging from his neck, Perez said proudly, “I run really fast. It’s not the first time I got it. I have another first-place medal in another race.”
Such success helped ease the disappointment of seeing the past two Summer Games canceled.
“I’m happy I’m here,” Perez said.
That was clear from the smile stretched across his face. It’s the kind of unbridled joy that drew Gage Park coach Katie Hart to Special Olympics nearly two decades ago.
Hart, who is in her 18th year, called the two-year absence of the Summer Games “horrible.”
“The kids … this is what they live for,” Hart said. “This is their excitement. They can get a piece of normalcy in their life and it was taken away (by the pandemic). It was sad and a lot of kids just were lost without it.”
The opportunity to return this year was rejuvenating for Hart’s athletes. It boosted her spirits as well. Special Olympics Illinois athletes have been doing that for her since she was studying physical education in college and worked in a Special Rec program.
“I just fell in love,” Hart said. “They are amazing. They just do life the way everybody should.”
On a wonderful weekend, they were able to do it together after two years apart.
To view photos from the 2022 Summer Games, go to our Flickr page.