At first, Sheryl Jans’ P.E. students at John Lewis Middle School told her, “No. No way.” None of them wanted to compete for Special Olympics Illinois. None of them knew much about the Special Olympics movement. No one knew what to expect.

Sheryl was on a mission though. “I told them, ‘Oh, you’re coming,” she said. Sheryl called each student’s parents to get them on board. She rallied other teachers and paraprofessionals that work in her school and classroom. Sheryl was anxious to introduce her students to spirited competition and was unsure how they would react.

“As soon as they competed,” Sheryl said, “they were completely enthralled.”

Hailing from Waukegan, the John Lewis Middle School Jaguars competed at Special Olympics Illinois Region B’s Spring Games for the first time. They arrived bright and early to participate in Opening Ceremony, watch the Torch Run, and recite the Athlete Oath with more than 700 other athletes competing that day.

For Sheryl, the very thought of seeing her students compete moved her to tears. “They bring us so much joy,” she said. Often, when speaking about her athletes, Sheryl would take a moment to compose herself.

“The emotion for me is so overwhelming,” Sheryl said. She talked about seeing one student, Alisson Alvarez, find the joy of competition during her first-ever snowshoeing event. “Alisson had been the first to compete and she’s my only girl on the team. When I saw her cross that finish line, she ran right to me and said, ‘I got first place.’ I started sobbing.”

The comradery of athletes and families in the John Lewis Middle School’s tent was palpable. Athletes played card games, sang their favorite tunes, and laughed together. Natanael Landeros, 13, said he enjoyed his time so far as an athlete for Special Olympics Illinois. “I get to meet other people, make new friends,” he said.

Sue Laschinski, a paraprofessional who works in Sheryl’s classroom said the whole school was behind the effort to prepare these athletes for their Spring Games. “Teachers donated shoes,” Sue said, “and Ms. Jains had friends of friends help out or donate.”

Sue also said she saw a big change in the students she works with since becoming Special Olympics Illinois athletes. “You see this,” Sue motioned to the tent, “their comradery. They encourage each other. They interact more together.”

And it was that athlete bond that Sheryl found the most moving.

“If they win nothing, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “They’re here and they’re together, happy.”

The John Lewis Middle School Jaguars did compete that day. From silver and bronze to ribbons, they put into action the Athlete Oath. Win or lose, they were brave in their attempt.

To learn more about Special Olympics Illinois, please click here. To volunteer for a Special Olympics Illinois event in your area, please click here.