Young Athletes Stories

Joe Mantegna Reads Baby’s Day Out


We have had such great turnout from so many different celebrities and friends reading to our Young Athletes! Today, we bring you a special book reading! Chicago native and Criminal Minds actor Joe Mantegna reads Baby’s Day Out! And you might just catch a glimpse of him in the movie too. Thanks Joe!

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!   

Brotherly Duo Cement Bond Through Young Athletes Participation


Nicholas Jess of Mattoon is following in his brother William’s footsteps as a Special Olympics Young Athlete. William, now 12, first competed as a Young Athlete and now Nicholas is too. Their bond as brothers increased over the years through this program.

Nicholas Jess participates in Young Athletes individual skills at State Basketball Tournament

Nicholas Jess participates in Young Athletes individual skills at State Basketball Tournament

William started in Young Athletes at Camp New Hope when he was 4 years old. After finishing Young Athletes, William transitioned into Special Olympics as a traditional athlete. William now participates in track and field and basketball. He competed in the 100-meter run, 4×100-meter relay and running long jump. William’s favorite sport is running long jump.

Nicholas began Young Athletes when he was 2 years old at Eastern Illinois University’s program and now competes independently. Nicholas, now 6, has participated in Young Athlete exhibitions in snowshoeing and basketball at state competitions. His favorite sport is snowshoeing because he enjoys running. He recently participated at the Special Olympics Illinois State Basketball Tournament as a Young Athlete and William volunteered at his side.

William and Nicholas Jess with their parents Matthew and Laura

William and Nicholas Jess with their parents Matthew and Laura

When Nicholas first began Young Athletes, he was not able to run or jump and was nonverbal until he was 3. Mother Laura Jess described his burst in energy as a lightbulb turning on. Now he uses Young Athletes as an outlet to release his energy.

William practiced basketball with Nicholas at home to prepare for the State Basketball Tournament. William’s advice for Nicholas in future events is to “be fast.” We can expect the duo to continue participating in Special Olympics while strengthening their bond.

View photos from the 2016 State Basketball Tournament.

By Tyler Krivich, Communications Intern

Young Athletes Spotlight – Sadie Fiedler


Sadie Fiedler is a well-rounded 7-year-old from Rochester who is a social butterfly and loves to be surrounded by friends. Although she’s only in first grade, Sadie has already had a lot of opportunities with Special Olympics and beyond!

Sadie Fiedler

Sadie Fiedler

She started her sporting career with gymnastics by practicing at CheerZone in Springfield at the age of 5. Loving being active, Sadie wanted to try more sports and, in October 2013, Sadie tried her hand at basketball. Her mother, Barb Fiedler, worked with Special Olympics staff to sign Sadie up for her first Special Olympics Young Athletes exhibition. Sadie participated in basketball individual skills at the State Basketball Tournament. She had such a great experience that she wanted to try EVERY sport Special Olympics has to offer.

Sadie has now participated at Summer Games soccer skills exhibition in Normal and Outdoor Sports Festival softball individual skills exhibition in Decatur. Next up for Sadie is Winter Games snowshoeing exhibition in Galena. She is also learning to swim and bowl. Through participating with various sports and activities, Sadie has been able to meet and make friends all over Central Illinois!

SadieOutside of Special Olympics sports, Sadie is one busy little girl. She is starting in her 3rd year of special needs cheerleading.  In addition to being very athletic, Sadie also has a creative arts side.  She has been in music classes since she was 2. She also started ballet, tumbling and tap dancing at the age of 16 months. And just recently, Sadie has been in involved with four beauty pageants. This opportunity has really encouraged her to answer questions on stage with a lot of people watching. She really enjoys the attention. Sadie is also very involved in 4-H; she just finished her 2nd year in the program.

Sadie has amazingly supportive family with her two brothers, Jake, 15, and Scott, 10, and mom and dad.  Her brothers love to watch and coach Sadie with all of her sports.  She also loves to coach them with their sports, mainly wrestling.  She also has a pet cockatiel that she is training to talk and do tricks.

We are so happy to have such an incredible family and athlete as part of our organization. We look forward to seeing what Sadie accomplished in her Special Olympics career in the future.

Young Athletes Spotlight – Bo Gill


Bo GillBo Gill is a caring and lovable 7-year-old from Morton.  He attends Lincoln Elementary and has been participating with Morton School District for the past two years. His favorite activity is the 50-meter run. Really, any time he gets to run, he loves it!

“This program is awesome!” says Christine Bo, Gill’s mother. “We have never been involved with any type of program like this before. To watch Bo at all the different events, be cheered on and accepted by other athletes, peers, volunteers and spectators is incredible. Special Olympics has truly opened our eyes to what Bo is capable of and proven that everyone is important and has a gift to share with the world.”

Bo is a Young Athlete who practices with a traditional agency to participate at state- and Area-level exhibitions for Young Athletes. He has attended Summer Games and Spring Games participating in athletics (tennis ball throw and 50-meter run).

Bo Gill, center, with fellow Young Athletes

Bo Gill, center, with fellow Young Athletes

Bailey Brenner, Manager of the Young Athletes Program says, “Bo is such a pleasure to work with.  At every event, he shows pure athleticism and passion for playing sports.  He does an unbelievable job!”

When Bo isn’t working on his running skills he also likes to play baseball, watch soccer and he loves swimming.  He also started to take golf lessons and has begun training for downhill skiing! Bo has two sisters and a brother and recently became an uncle!

We’re so excited to have such a great Young Athlete and family involved with the Young Athletes Program and can’t wait to see what is in store for him in the future!