The annual 2024 Special Olympics Illinois Winter Games unfolded in Galena this past week with an atmosphere of camaraderie, fierce competition, and unseasonably warm weather. Nearly 750 participants, including athletes, coaches, and volunteers, descended upon Galena for the event, showcasing their talent and determination in Alpine skiing and snowshoeing.
The warmth in the air mirrored the warmth in the hearts of the participants.
One of those participants was Reyanna Johnson, a coach from Envision Unlimited Frick Center in Chicago This marked her third year at the Winter Games, and she, for one, didn’t mind the more milder weather this time around.
"They miss the snow. They want the snow. But this is kind of okay because at the competition when we had regionals, it was on grass or whatever, so they were kind of ready for this. But the weather is good for us. It's comfortable," Reyanna shared with a smile.
Her passion for coaching and dedication to her athletes were evident as she spoke about the joy she feels when watching them compete. "As long as they're happy, they make my world. I love them so much," she said.
Something that wasn’t unusual to find at Winter Games this year was the unmistakable energy found at a Special Olympics Illinois state competition. It was ever present, but it was nowhere more present than on the competition field.
April Papke, an athlete from Kendall County Special Olympics, was elated to share her most recent triumph. "I just got gold in the 50 [meter], and actually this is my first gold at Winter Games," she shared proudly.
“With the athletes, it's just unbelievable how proud they are,” April’s coach Michelle Worthington added. “No matter what they do in their events or anything, they just carry themselves with pride. Team to team, athletes are cheering each other on. If somebody falls, I've seen athletes go and help them get up. It's just remarkable.”
The two, along with fellow teammate Samantha Worthington, discussed the challenges of competing without snow in snowshoeing events. "It's difficult, but it is what it is. Personally, I like the snow better than the grass," April confessed, highlighting the athletes' resilience. Michelle added, "Last year, it was so cold," reminiscing about the unpredictable conditions.
Despite the challenges, the trio emphasized the joy of participating and supporting one another in the true spirit of Special Olympics.
Cathy Young is a seasoned volunteer with a Special Olympics Illinois history dating back to 1981. Cathy's involvement with the organizations has been extensive, from coaching eight different sports to serving on the Families Committee for the past 15-20 years.
"I can't not do it. I've had the athletes in my home, and it's just something I'm very passionate about," Cathy explained, her commitment shining through. "I do it for the athletes. A lot of them wouldn't get to be involved if we didn't do this, you know, for various reasons."
As the Winter Games 2024 came to a close, it was clear that the unseasonable warmth didn't just come from the weather. The passion, dedication, and love exhibited by participants, coaches, and volunteers transformed Galena into a heartwarming haven for the Special Olympics Illinois community. Though the state-level event may have concluded, the memories created in Galena will undoubtedly last a lifetime.