Unified Stories

Meet Daniel Cramer


Daniel Cramer was born on the 25th of June in 1999.  He was born six weeks early, but he quickly gained strength and met all his growth milestones on time.  Sadly, though, when Daniel turned two, he had his first seizure.  He lost all his speech and muscle tone and, suddenly, he was not the little boy we had come to know.  After going from doctor to doctor, Daniel was finally diagnosed with Autism, developmental delay, and seizure disorder.  It took many years of work to get him to talk again and socialize.  When Daniel turned eight, we introduced him to Special Olympics Illinois and the rest is history.

Daniel started bowling and, he loved it so much, he started playing other sports too.  He now participates in Basketball, Bocce, Bowling, Track and Field, Tennis, Golf, Volleyball, Powerlifting and Snowshoeing, and is still always looking for more sports to play.

In powerlifting, Daniel can bench 165 pounds, and he lifts 360 pounds in the dead weight competition.  He and his family feel that powerlifting has given Daniel the strength to do well in all his sports.  In the last 12 years of competing, he has earned over 140 medals!

As a highlight of his Special Olympics Illinois career, Daniel was chosen to represent Team USA in the 2019 World Games in Abu Dhabi.  He and his brother Ryan competed in Unified Bocce at the games.  He had the experience of a lifetime meeting other athletes from around the world and making many new friends, many of whom he continues to communicate with through Facebook.  Daniel made everyone very proud when he won gold, silver, and bronze medals for Team USA!

When Daniel came home, he was honored by the Mayor of Round Lake Beach at a groundbreaking Heroes ceremony. He also went to Springfield and was honored by Governor Pritzker during a luncheon at the Governors Manson.

Along with great sports skills, Daniel also demonstrates leadership skills, as well.  For example, after he graduated high school, there wasn’t a local basketball team on which Daniel could play, so he decided to start his own team!  He got six friends to join, found a local, indoor court to use and, with the help of his mother/coach, team “Independent Remarc‐a‐Bulls” was formed. This season, the team was undefeated and qualified for state!

Daniel continues to play as many sports as he can and, during this uncertain time, he is participating in the online “School of Strength” challenge to stay strong and healthy.  Speaking of healthy, Daniel is also a Health Messenger for Special Olympics Illinois and he takes it very seriously.  He wants to keep all of his fellow athletes fit and healthy, too, and extends his own challenge to all of them…“Will all my fellow athletes please take the challenge and keep fit in this time of social distancing.”

Well said, Daniel, and congratulations on all of your success.  Thank you for setting a wonderful example for your fellow athletes, peers, and everyone!

9th Annual NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball All-Star Game


By Daniel Smrokowski, Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger & Special Olympics Illinois Athlete Leader

From L to R: Global Ambassador Dikembe Mutombo, Nate Wade (SOCO), Carrie Nykiel (SOIL) and Horace Grant

On Friday, February 14, I had an opportunity to be an athlete reporter at the 9th annual NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game at NBA All-Star 2020 in Chicago. I attended this event, along with my SSIGM mentor & Chief Marketing Officer from Special Olympics Illinois (SOILL) Chris Winston and two other marketing & communications staff from SO Illinois, Alex & Bridget. During the Unified game, we sat courtside to watch the exciting game. I was honored and grateful to attend this star-studded sporting event, especially since basketball is one of my favorite sports in Special Olympics to compete in.

Here I am posing with my SOILL colleagues. From L to R: Chris, Alex and Bridget.

This Special Olympics Unified Game took place at the Wintrust Arena on Chicago’s south side during NBA All-Star Week, right before the Celebrity Game. In case you missed the thrilling #NBAAllStar2020 Unified game in the Windy City, the action was streamed live on the NBA’s Facebook page.

We had ten fellow Special Olympics athletes from across our Special Olympics North America Region, one athlete from Special Olympics Belgium (SO Europe-Eurasia Region), and one athlete from Special Olympics South Korea (Special Olympics East Asia Region). The teams were divided into two — the East Team (Home) and the West Team (Away). Both teams consisted of five Special Olympics athletes per team and celebrity Unified partners. Each team also had volunteer celebrity coaches. The number “24” was branded on the upper left breast of every athlete’s uniform in honor of the late Kobe Bryant, former L.A. Lakers professional athlete.

Sean Annan from SO British Columbia takes on Injae Kim from SO Korea.

Sean Annan, fellow Special Olympics athlete, traveled from his home which is 20 miles from Vancouver, Canada. Sean regularly competes with his team from Special Olympics British Columbia in his Langley program. In addition to basketball, Sean competes in golf. He also competes on a regular softball team.

“It’s a once-in-a-life-time [experience],” said Sean in a post-game interview near the locker rooms. “It’s really special meeting new people from different places [and] I’m having fun, that’s what it’s all about.”

Watch my full postgame interview with Sean on SCTV, the digital television platform on Special Chronicles LIVE: https://youtu.be/iUbVDrZqka0

Post-game interview with hometown hero Carrie Nykiel.

Directly from our home state of Special Olympics Illinois, USA, fellow Special Olympics athlete Carrie Nykiel didn’t have to travel far as she competes right in the Chicago area. Carrie competes in mostly every sport including volleyball, softball, and powerlifting.

“It was an amazing, great experience, [and] first time doing it,” said Carrie during a postgame interview after an excellent star-studded Unified basketball game during the NBA All-Star 2020.

Watch the full postgame interview I hosted with Carrie LIVE from the Wintrust Arena on Special Chronicles LIVE and airing on SCTV: https://youtu.be/jGuB0lIxQeo

Posing for a pic with singer/songwriter Andy Grammer!

For those who have attended any of our many Special Olympics events, our movement is driven by more than 1.1 million volunteers donating their time and expertise. That’s true for Andy Grammer, triple-platinum singer/songwriter, who stepped up this year as a volunteer coach for the 2020 NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball game.

Moments after the game, I had an opportunity to ask Andy about his experiences serving as a coach for this Special Olympics Unified Sports event.

“It’s the way it makes your heart feel,” said Andy about what the Inclusion Revolution means to him. “This is the best place to be.”

Watch the full postgame interview I hosted with Andy Grammer LIVE from Chicago on Special Chronicles LIVE — airing on SCTV and on SpecialOlympics.orghttps://youtu.be/bKOqlIszgOE

In memory of the late Kobe Bryant from the Los Angeles Lakers NBA team who had passed away a few weeks prior to this year’s NBA All-Star Week, our Special Olympics Unified Game concluded in an exciting moment that paid tribute to Kobe.

Getting Chris Carter’s reactions to his game-winning steal and jump shot!

Christopher Carter, fellow Special Olympics athlete, traveled from Special Olympics Virginia, USA. Chris’ parents coach for Special Olympics and he says his family lives and breathes basketball. Pointing at the number “24” on his yellow-colored uniform, Chris said his favorite part of the game was a tribute to the late Kobe Bryant.

The score went back and forth in the fourth quarter and with less than 30 seconds left, Chris’ team was down three. After Unified partner Horace Grant scored to pull his team within one, Chris stole the inbounds pass and hit a baseline jump shot with 11 seconds left to seal the victory for his team.

“If it wasn’t for this number,” said Chris. “The game winning shot, of course, the gaming winning shot” was Chris’ favorite part of this year’s Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game during the NBA All-Star Week.

Watch the full postgame interview I hosted with Chris Carter moments after his winning shot. Now Available to watch on Special Chronicles LIVE, airing on SCTV the Special Chronicles digital television platform, SCTV: https://youtu.be/ff3dI5onvtk

I have to agree that this inclusion moment was my favorite part, too. Amongst many celebrities, we were able to bring our Inclusion Revolution movement to the NBA and the world of professional sporting events. This is the way to be fully included. This is how we can truly live in a Unified world.

Whether we are playing sports or interviewing fellow athletes & celebrities off the court, we all win when we #ChooseToInclude and join the Inclusion Revolution.

Sign the Inclusion Pledge at: JoinTheRevolution.org

Congratulations to all on competing in a thrilling Unified game!

My Son Ooozes with Confidence


Before a baby arrives, parents talk about endless possibilities.  They plan ahead and they make sure everything is perfect.  Parents dream about a bright and beautiful path for their child, and that path is paved by their own experiences because, naturally, to that point, that’s all they know.

The day arrives that they’ve been waiting for and a child with intellectual disabilities is placed in their arms. They are not sure at first how to communicate their fears and the myriad of other thoughts and emotions that come and go.  Well-intentioned friends and family have a hard time communicating, as well, which often makes things more difficult.  Doctor visits also are discouraging as the general focus is defining what this child cannot do, as opposed to what it can.       

Brook and Dave, Jack Klawitter’s parents, made an early decision to blaze a trail down a new path and to not be angry or frustrated but, instead, to celebrate their child.  They received a recommendation from Jack’s physical therapist to try Special Olympics Illinois.

Later, they headed to Normal, Illinois, to have Jack participate for the first time in the Young Athletes program.  Anticipation of that new experience came with fear and a roller coaster of emotions for Brook.  She noted that she didn’t know if being involved in Special Olympics would come with a stigma.  Instead, the experience became the first day of Jack’s life when Brook and Dave enjoyed a sense of calm and community.  “It was the first day we got to celebrate Jack openly.  Celebrate him.  It wasn’t to compare.  We just got to celebrate,” notes Brook.  “In that day and in that moment. It was just about being somewhere that we were comfortable.  Not measured. Not evaluated. And we got to be. People helped us celebrate what Jack could do, not what he couldn’t do.”

Brook recalls that the children participating in Special Olympics that day, and every day forward, whether with disabilities or not, are ALL learning to run, jump, kick, balance, and more, at the same time.  “Because he participated in Young Athletes, he could participate in the exact same way!  He didn’t know the impact he was having,” she says. 

That impact can be seen through Jack’s two sisters, Sophia and Marion, who, Brook says, “treat everyone like they are individuals and are incredibly supportive.”  

Jack’s involvement in Special Olympics Illinois also allowed the Klawitter family to become part of something bigger that what they had known before, and they realized that they were supported by an entire village of individuals who genuinely care for both Jack and their whole family. 

As is a core goal for Special Olympics Illinois, the experience and environmental gains go far beyond the fields of play.  In Jack’s case, and in the case of thousands of other athletes, Special Olympics helps to develop lifetime skills for all chapters of that person’s life.  Brook fondly notes, “Young athletes set him up for PE and recess.  In Kindergarten, it is PE and recess when they set up social skills.  (Jack) learned those skills and practiced them on a regular basis.”  She continues with a specific example from their local park district t-ball league.  “He was happy and confident participating with all typically developing peers and you realize then, in those times, when he is doing this confidently, that he is starting to change minds and attitudes.  These are the people that need to see beyond the almond shaped eyes.”

When listening to Brook speak, you hear the words of a proud mother boasting about her son.  This is the same mother that looked at her newborn with Downs Syndrome and thought about that path of success that she and Dave had mentally laid out prior to his birth.  In many ways, that path is more firm and straight that many parents in their shoes could imagine.  “Jack oozes with confidence,” Brook says.  “He sees every opportunity. Every moment, as a new opportunity for success.  Because he has a thousand opportunities instead of ten, the 20 times when he HAS failed, he shrugs it off and tries again.” 

When asked to summarize a few keys of what Special Olympics provides for Jack, Brook notes, “(Special Olympics Illinois gives the) right support and process in place for him.  He is absolutely going to be successful in that environment, and when he is successful, he grows confidence and believes he can do the next thing.  He sees everything as a chance to succeed.”

Jack’s successes in just 14 years of life so far range from competitions won to hugs and high-fives from peers everywhere.  Before Jack’s birth, Brook and Dave dreamed about a bright and beautiful future for their child.  They just had no idea that the bright would come in the form of bronze, silver, and gold, and the beautiful would come from the smiles on the faces of everyone who calls Jack Klawitter a friend. From your friends at Special Olympics Illinois, Happy Birthday Jack!   

2019 Special Olympics Unified Sports MLS All-Star Match


MLS, ESPN and Special Olympics have teamed up to promote an environment of social inclusion by uniting people with and without intellectual disabilities through Special Olympics Unified Sports®.

The cornerstone to the collaboration is the Unified Sports Soccer Exchange Program. Unified soccer teams travel to MLS markets to compete in exhibition matches scheduled in conjunction with MLS club matches. MLS Clubs provide unique experiences such as signing days, jersey unveils, buddy programs with MLS first-team players, and gameday recognition. Unified teams represent their home MLS Club, outfitted in authentic uniforms provided by Adidas.

The team will depart on Friday, August 3, for a Unified Match in Houston Texas. The initial match will be held at Houston Sports Park – 12131 Kirby Dr, Houston TX 77045. The team will play 2 – 45 min half match vs. the Unified Houston Dynamos.

Team Bios


Unified Partners:

The Special Olympics Unified Sports All-Star Soccer Experience presented by MLS WORKS & ESPN is an opportunity to showcase the athletes and partners who participate in the Unified Exchange program in local communities throughout the United States and Canada. The 2019 Unified All-Star Experience will take place from Monday, July 29 to Thursday, August 1 in Orlando, Florida as part of 2019 MLS All-Star Week festivities.Two athletes from Illinois will be participating, Allison Schaar and Mike Brennan.














Illinois Teams with a Unified Dream


Striving towards social inclusion through the Special Olympics Unified Cup

Media Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsT6KwlQOq4

CHICAGO – The 50th Anniversary of the Special Olympics this year will introduce a new phase in the world of Unified Sports, a program that works to bring people with and without intellectual disabilities together to compete on the same teams. The transition into a new phase of social inclusion is marked by the first ever Special Olympics Unified Cup, and will continue to challenge the way people view those with intellectual disabilities. Given this opportunity, the male and female Unified soccer teams representing Illinois in the tournament are excited to achieve a new level of equality in the world for those with intellectual disabilities.

Cori Hoekstraw, a junior in High School, is competing on the female Illinois team. She is a Unified partner, which means someone who participates in Unified Sports but does not have an intellectual disability. Hoekstraw grew up playing soccer and has shared numerous fields with athletes who have intellectual disabilities. One particular experience made her realize that they are not so different from people like herself.

“Society puts a label on people with intellectual disabilities that leads us think that they’re so different from us,” she said. “But in reality, they all see themselves as human beings just like we do.”

Hoekstraw believes that social inclusion is a natural product of different communities working together to celebrate diversity. She describes how her experience of playing alongside them has completely shifted her perspective of them and offers her understanding as a lesson for the world.

“I remember sitting with a group and one of the athletes said, “Guys, I look great today.” Hoekstraw recalls. “It opened my eyes to realize that we deserve to be celebrated equally and recognized for our unique talents.”

This call for equality and recognition of talent has been the foundation of Special Olympics. From the very beginning, this sports organization has been a channel through which athletes with intellectual disabilities could compete and prove themselves as serious competitors. 50 years later, the goal has expanded to promote global unity beyond sports, and the Unified Cup will spearhead this shift. The Special Olympics 50th Anniversary emphasizes the importance of inclusive and unified sports comprised of people with and without intellectual disabilities. The Unified Cup will take place July 17-20 in Chicago, Ill., site of the first International Special Olympics Summer Games in 1968. The Unified Cup will include 8 female and 16 male Unified soccer teams from all around the world. They will compete to win – but, more importantly, to demonstrate what members of an inclusive society can accomplish through mutual respect for one another.

David Dore, a Special Ed teacher at Homewood Flossmoor High School, has been involved with Special Olympics for the past 11 years. He has been a part of the vast and dedicated network of people who have invested their time, resources, and technical knowledge in preparing these athletes. This year, he is a coach for the male Illinois team in the Unified Cup and describes just how special this opportunity is.

“The thing about people with intellectual disabilities is that they are seen by what they can’t do,” he explains. “Just because you have an intellectual disability doesn’t mean you’re not athletically gifted.”

As a teacher, Dore hopes that each of his students find what they are passionate about in life. The gift of discovering one’s passion, Dore believes, is what helps a person’s confidence flourish. He sees this phenomenon carry over onto the field when athletes walk away from practice with more confidence, as they are identified by their athletic talents over their disabilities. The Unified Cup gives the athletes a powerful platform to share their passion with the world.

“What’s extremely special about this experience is that the athletes get to represent something much larger than themselves and people will look up to them for that,” Dore said.

The Special Olympics continues to uphold this purpose. However, the new agenda for the organization moving forth is to continue building these interpersonal relationships and encouraging community participation onto a global scale through the involvement of teams from all over the world.

Individuals like Cori Hoekstraw and David Dore share the privilege of being a part of these athletes’ lives through the opportunities provided by Special Olympics. The Unified Cup is a global invitation to come alongside those with intellectual disabilities to witness their talents and be a part of social inclusion at work. The opportunity for these athletes to be treated as equals will not be left on the field, but will be carried out into the world as an example to follow.

Caryna Caryan and Mina Kim are PR students at Pepperdine University.