This article originally ran in the Chicago Sun-Times on July 16.
The countdown begins! In less than a month - on Thursday, August 10 - a truckload of rubber ducks will take a dip in the Chicago River for the annual Chicago Ducky Derby. Last year, 75,000 rubber ducks were cast from the Columbus Drive Bridge while thousands of spectators lined the river and tuned in from home.
This year, the Chicago Ducky Derby is amping up their goal and hopes to sell 100,000 ducks.
Special Olympics Illinois provides year-round opportunities in competitive sports, health education, leadership and personal development to people with intellectual disabilities, building a community of more than 55,000 traditional athletes, Young Athletes, Unified partners, coaches, volunteers, and more.
Family, friends, and supporters can purchase ducks for $5 a piece or packs of six to 240 for $25 to $1,000. Each duck is an entry into the big "Splashdown" race toward the finish line near Michigan Avenue at the City Cruises by Hornblower boat, the Odyssey - and there are some pretty sweet prizes. Patrons can win a 2024 Chevy Trax, a Royal Caribbean Cruise, four lifetime passes to Six Flags Great America, a $500 shopping spree for 6 people ($3,000 total value) to Save the Duck or a $2,000 cash prize - big incentives to purchase that pack of ducks!
This year's Duck Ambassador, Josh LeClaire, has the important job of plucking the winning duck out of the Chicago River. "It's a special honor" says his mother, Cheryl. What's more, "he was meant to be the Duck Ambassador," she says. He's known as "the duck guy" at the ranch where he volunteers with Horsepower Therapeutic Riding - and although it wasn't planned, the Duck Ambassador title certainly fits.
Josh has earned the distinguished role, too. He's been a part of Special Olympics Illinois for almost a decade, since 2014. He's a multi-sport athlete, participating in basketball, soccer, tennis, floor hockey, athletics, bocce, volleyball and his favorites, golf and softball. Last month, he and his team, the NISRA Knights, won a bronze medal at soccer at the 2023 Summer Games in Normal, Illinois. And, he's involved in the Athlete Leadership program, where he attends special meetings and weighs in on important organizational decisions.
This program, along with his involvement in Special Olympics Illinois as a whole, has allowed Josh to flourish. "Before, he wasn't talking at all, and now he advocates for himself," says Cheryl. He's even gotten to do speeches to help raise awareness about the organization. And, as the Duck Ambassador, he'll be interviewed on TV.
But what Josh is most excited for is "getting to meet new people." Not only has he gained strong social skills with Special Olympics Illinois, he's made a lot of friends. "He gets to hangout with people who don't judge him, [who] still love you, even if you don't talk to them," says Cheryl.
Special Olympics Illinois has been an incredible support system for families of athletes, too. Cheryl's part of a tight knit group of moms who raise money for the Chicago Ducky Derby with the Darling Ducklings. a fundraising team comprised of Special Olympics Illinois athletes. "It's become a big family where we depend on each other. If you need help, they'll help you. It's become a close-knit community," says Cheryl.
The Darling Ducklings hope to sell 15,000 ducks this year to benefit Special Olympics Illinois - an organization which has enriched the lives of countless athletes and families like Josh and Cheryl. To support them by adopting a duck, go to chicagoduckyderby.com and look for "2023 Darling Ducklings" under the "Teams" tab.
And don't forget to attend the Chicago Ducky Derby itself on Thursday, August 10. The "Splashdown" - or when the ducks are dropped - will take place at 1 p.m. but festivities are open to the public from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. CT.
For more information, visit the Special Olympics Illinois website at soill.org.