Athlete Valerie Densler, 28, said competing in Special Olympics Illinois has allowed her to shine.

“Being an athlete, you can be yourself,” she said. “You can enjoy all the fun things that everyone else would do. People play basketball, and you can play basketball without being made fun of.”

Valerie said she stays active by competing in basketball, bocce, bowling, flag football, softball, and swimming, as well as track and field. She also became an Athlete Leader last November and is enjoying getting to know the ins and outs of Special Olympics Illinois.

“It’s fun to see the backside, how everything works,” she said. “How it all started. How much needs to happen for it to come together.”

Being an Athlete Leader has given Valerie new goals, from fundraising for her Polar Plunge to recruiting more athletes for Special Olympics Illinois programming in her region. “I have many goals,” Valerie laughed. “I have to do five speeches to get my blazer.”

Athletes who participate in Athlete Leadership earn a black blazer after completing five public speeches. Valerie’s first speech will be at her Polar Plunge. “It’s been kind of crazy,” Valerie said of preparing for her speech. “But I’m ready.”

This year, Valerie will be taking the Polar Plunge in Region K at the SIU – Touch of Nature Polar Plunge. She said she has had success in challenging herself and her social circle.

“At the beginning of the Polar Plunge season, I said if I don’t raise $1,000, then I’m not doing it.” She added that social media is her main fundraising tool. “I message people and ask them if they’re interested. I post on social media, not every day, but every few days. I like to give people updates.”

Valerie loves to wear a costume, and this year, her costume will be a surprise, she said. “I dressed as chicken once. I’m not a chicken anymore,” Valerie joked.

Overall, Valerie said she finds inspiration from challenging herself to try new things and take new opportunities. “Being an Athlete Leader is something I never thought about in my entire life. Being an Athlete Leader has given more than I could have ever imagined.”

To support athletes like Valerie, commit to taking the Polar Plunge, donate, or find out more information, please visit PlungeIllinois.com.