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Athletes Plunge for Athletes


The 50th Anniversary in 2018 was the pivot from the past to the future.  The athletes of Special Olympics were once led by others, and now those athletes lead us into the future. That fact has become more and more evident in the last two years, and the current 2020 Polar Plunge season is a fine example.

When examining the 25 plunge events throughout the state of Illinois, the most popular, colorful, prominent figures, and often highest fundraisers will be athletes of Special Olympics Illinois. Because there are just too many athletes to choose from, we took a closer look at three that embody the “let me brave in the (plunge) attempt,” #BeBoldGetCold attitude.

One such athlete that instantly comes to mind is past Special Olympics Illinois Board member, who hails from Region F in West Central Illinois, Kaylee McLaughlin. When you think of Kaylee, an instant smile appears because a smile is definitely her trademark.  One of Kaylee’s favorite memories as an athlete was when she spoke at the State Summer Games Opening Ceremony.  If you listened to her speak, you could hear that smile in her voice.  It is that same smile and glimmering attitude that has driven her to raise thousands of dollars over the past four years at the Galesburg, Macomb and Rock Island plunges.

Kaylee has been a Special Olympics athlete for ten years and  has competed in bocce, track and field, bowling, flag football, volleyball, basketball, snow shoeing, golf and softball.  Kaylee’s list of unique efforts to raise money for the Polar Plunge is as extensive as her list of sports.  From producing live videos every day for 100 days leading up to the plunge, to selling gnomes, bracelets, and coasters, to giving handwritten letters as thanks for donations, to distributing plunge flyers and photographs of her plunging to 200 local businesses this year, there is no shortage of great ideas.  When asked what one of her favorite fundraising ideas was, Kaylee said, “What I did one year was to tell my online viewers that if my dad hit the very large goal my mom and I set for him, he would plunge in my prom dress!  Guess what?  We have funny pictures of my dad wearing a pink dress!”

Heading down to Southern Illinois to Region J, we meet a newcomer of the Polar Plunge, Saneatha Trice. Saneatha, though, is certainly not a rookie of Special Olympics Illinois, as she has been competing for seven years in swimming, softball, bowling, volleyball, basketball, and snowshoeing.  Two of her brightest achievements both came last year in gymnastics when she made the trip to the USA Games in Seattle, and then achieved a Gold Medal at the World Games in Abu Dhabi, UAE!

As a plunger, Saneatha jumps in the unique chilly dip in Belleville, Illinois labeled the “Dumpster Plunge.”  Plunge participants jump in one end of a very long and spotlessly-clean dumpster, and work their way down to the other end. This particular plunge is a favorite amongst many because it is so unique, and Saneatha enjoys the experience.  Along with plunging, itself, as one of her favorite memories, she claims that her ultimate best memory was when she had the chance to meet and take a picture with the St. Louis Blues mascot, Louie!

Working our way to Blackhawk country, Kurt Noble of Evanston, in Region B, has been competing with Special Olympics Illinois for 40 years. Kurt has participated in track and field, snowshoeing, basketball, bocce, volleyball and bowling, and currently his sports include powerlifting and flag football.  When asked about his favorite memories, Kurt highlights how much it meant to him when his late mother would come out to support him at his events. 

The unique manner and equally sweet demeanor of Kurt shines through in his fundraising and support over the past four years for another Special Olympics Illinois athlete- his wife Lisa.  Lisa competes in bowling, snowshoeing, track and field, basketball, unified volleyball, flag football and bocce.

Kurt and Lisa are equally driven and always ready to accomplish the next task. Together, so far, they have helped to raise close to $4,000 for the athletes of Special Olympics Illinois. 

While Lisa is his star gal, one of Kurt’s favorite memories of plunging was when the Northwestern Women’s Volleyball team came out to support Kurt at his plunge in Lake Michigan at Northwestern University campus in Evanston.

No matter who the athlete is, where they are in the state, or in what body of water they will take that cold dive, you can count on athletes to participate in the Polar Plunge on a large scale to raise money for their own cause.  

Now it is YOUR turn!  Take the plunge. With 25 locations around the State of Illinois, there is one near you. Go to to find your plunge today and #BeBoldGetCold  

Northwestern University to Lend Support for Upcoming SUPER Plunge


After the gold medals have been won and the teams leave Chestnut Mountain, Special Olympics Illinois sets forth on a new challenge – one that dares you to be bold and get cold for athletes across the state. It’s the annual Illinois Law Enforcement Torch Run Polar Plunge!

Last year, nearly 7,000 warm-hearted individuals raised $2,000,000 from February to March. In 2020, those brave enough will have the opportunity to take the frigid leap at 25 different locations throughout Illinois – beginning in Peoria on February 15.

Special Olympics Illinois relies on dedicated LETR members in Illinois for these events—members like Detective Robbi Peterson.

Peterson started attending Law Enforcement Torch Run events in 2008 before eventually becoming the West Chicago Police Department’s LETR liaison. Finding inspiration at the LETR Kick-Off in early 2009, he and his daughter Taylor began taking the Polar Plunge.

“We raised a little over $600 between the two of us,” Peterson explained. “Each year we tried to top the previous and eventually her younger siblings, Isabella and Jayden, joined us.  I also pressured a few co-workers over the years and our group continued to grow.”

After Peterson attended his first International LETR conference in Nashville, he felt further motivated to support Special Olympics.

“The message I received was, ‘What can I do to make it bigger and better?’” 

Peterson’s answer? The SUPER Plunge.

He will be starting his third SUPER Plunge on February 21. The league of nearly 60 SUPER Plungers will jump into Lake Michigan once an hour for 24 hours.

Over the past three years Peterson has joined the SUPER Plunge Committee and aids the group in finding ways to make the event bigger, better, and most importantly more fun for those participating. This year, he had the idea to give thanks and recognize Northwestern University – who unofficially host the event on their campus lakefront.

“I recall last year standing outside getting ready to take a plunge at 9 p.m. and looked up toward the lit up fieldhouse and the entire women’s field hockey team was standing near the window watching us and cheering us on,” Peterson recalls.

“That was pretty cool.” 

Through social media, Haley Zimmerman (the Athletic Trainer for the Northwestern Women’s Volleyball team and friend of Peterson) caught wind of the SUPER Plunge and came to see for herself what it was all about.

“After a few weeks I was already starting to think about next year’s SUPER Plunge. I reached out to Haley and asked about reception I might receive from staff or athletes if we looked at doing an hour where we honored Northwestern.”

A few weeks post-2019 SUPER Plunge, Peterson’s wheels were turning and with Zimmerman’s help the pair secured support from the athletic department. This year, the Women’s Assistant Volleyball Coach, Kevin Moore has agreed to jump with the SUPER Plungers during an early-evening hour of the event, and the volleyball team will come out to support him.

As part of this “Northwestern Hour” additional student athletes, staff and Willie the Wildcat will be on-site to pump up the SUPER Plunge and lend their encouragement to this outstanding group. Special Olympics Illinois athletes from Evanston Special Recreation will join in the fun, too.

When asked why he finds Special Olympics Illinois so important, Peterson laughs because he thinks it should be so obvious.

“To see these athletes grow in confidence and skill, year after year, due to the opportunities provided to them through Special Olympics Illinois is so rewarding.”  

He continues, “Knowing that the little piece we do for them can have life-changing effects is one of the most satisfying things a person can be a part of.”

Each SUPER Plunger is asked to raise a minimum of $2,500 to participate in this extreme event. Registration is now open for all Plunges statewide. For those interested in signing up or making a donation, please visit or by contact Jim Fitzpatrick via

“My involvement with Special Olympics Illinois thru the LETR is something I take great pride in,” says Peterson.

“I can’t think of any reason why Special Olympics Illinois isn’t important.”

When Smiles Count More than Words


Volunteer Mary Manley visited the 15th annual MedFest at United Center in Chicago to hear from doctors and athletes about why this event is so important to each of them.

By Mary Manley, Special Olympics Illinois volunteer

It is worth celebrating that this is the 15th year Chicago MedFest has been making the seemingly impossible happen.   Hundreds of volunteers from Advocate Medical Group, Illinois College of Optometry, Lions Clubs International, United Center and GE joined forces with Special Olympics Illinois on November 13, 2013.  Over the course of only five hours, 1,434 aspiring and current athletes received physical exams necessary for their participation in Special Olympics.  Many hundreds also had vision screenings and received free glasses if needed.  The reason for this annual event is to insure that every one who wants to participate in Special Olympics can.



United Center

A Simple Beginning

“It’s nice.”

Smiling MedFest AthleteNot exactly a dramatic beginning.  But like many things on this day, what is said only in words or numbers leaves out the best part of the story.  Like the huge enthusiastic grins that went with this athlete’s answer to “How is MedFest?” and “What do you think of Special Olympics?”  Only when those grins are added in do you begin to capture the excitement of the day.  It is visible in the faces of just about every one at MedFest.

Of course MedFest has had its dramatic moments.   For example some years back at MedFest a doctor caught a life-threatening heart condition that literally saved a child’s life.  But again, there is something worth celebrating in the relative absence of this kind of story today.  As one doctor who has been coming virtually every year since MedFest’s beginning said, “I got regulars now.”   The rarity of drama is a testament to the benefits of consistent exposure to quality health care.  And MedFest provides that.

Thanks to the United Center

In that same vein, everyone can appreciate the generosity of United Center. It has opened its doors and staff to MedFest for the 15th year in a row now.  But the United Center brings more than lots of free space to the party.  It brings the World Champion Chicago Blackhawks out to practice on the ice.  Can you imagine the excitement of getting to watch the Blackhawks practice live while you wait to see a doctor?  Now factor in the occasions when an athlete received a signed hockey stick or a doctor got a puck.   The personal connections made may be remembered even longer than all the excitement.

Advocate Medical Group and ICO

Hundreds of volunteer health care professionals from Advocate Medical Group and the Illinois College of Optometry volunteer their time for MedFest.  Their participation has a huge in-kind value. But what you don’t see in the numbers is the continuous welcoming smiles, enthusiastic high fives and countless stickers they share with the athletes.  Advocate Staff at MedFest 2Their comments reflect their genuine affection for the athletes.  One doctor who has a long history with MedFest said, “I look forward to it every year.  It’s great because the kids look forward to coming and the doctors do too. They (the athletes) deserve the best of life that can be given.”  A physician’s assistant who was volunteering for her third year said, “It’s been a lot of fun.  It’s a great event where we do these sports physicals so they can be active in activities they want to do. When you’re here (you) just keep a smile on your face and make sure that the person you are seeing is having a good time…make sure it’s a good experience for them.”  Another physician, who has actually never missed a year since MedFest started, simply said, “I love it!”

Of course everyone understands the benefits of MedFest for the athletes.  Equally important is the training and experience MedFest brings to the medical staff.  One physician remarked that he had never treated such a large volume of patients with these athletes particular needs before Medfest.  Obviously, his and everyone else’s experience at MedFest significantly enriches their abilities to work with similar people in their day-to-day practice.  But there are other more subtle lessons that the health care professionals learn from their interactions with these athletes.  One physician volunteered that the experience has made her grateful for what she has.  And a physician’s assistant had this to share:   “It helps you to remember that you have to treat everybody as someone special…as an individual… and give attention to them.”

It’s All About the Personal Stories

Opening Eyes ScreeningOne of the coaches shared a story about Samantha, one of her athletes.   The story illustrates something else the athletes have to teach us.  It also explains why, if you tell Samantha that you hear she is a runner, she will give you a smile that will stay with you for the rest of the day.

When Samantha first started training for Special Olympics, walking the few blocks between her school and the park was daunting.  In fact, she had to sit down and rest to do it.  So, when Samantha was ready to run a 50-meter race at a Special Olympics event, she was rightfully proud.  But luck was not on Samantha’s side.  Through one of those cosmic mix-ups, Samantha ended up in the wrong place – at the site for the 100-meter race.  Samantha had never run a 100-meter race in her life.  To make matters worse, the race was already finished.  But the referees could see that Samantha really wanted to run.  They explained that she could not win anything officially.  However, if she still wanted to run it was OK with them.  Samantha was psyched.  She ran the track.  Her first 100-meter race ever and it was without the benefit of competitors to either help pace or motivate.

In the meantime, her coach was not aware of history being made across the field.  All she knew was that she wanted Samantha to have a chance to shine in the 50 meter.

Volunteer Excited at MedFestSo she negotiated for Samantha’s 50-meter heat to be moved to a later slot.  That gave her time to locate Samantha.  The field between the two races loomed larger than usual to Samantha after her 100-meter adventure.  Still Samantha did not give up.  She arrived just in time for the rescheduled race.   Of course, Samantha was no longer on an even playing field with her competitors.  But she ran anyway – because Samantha has the spirit of a champion.

“Always be Great”

Dr. Rayner, a physician who has participated at MedFest for 14 of its 15 years, seems to look at life a similar way.  When asked what he would like to say to the athletes he said,  “Know that you are loved…  I encourage you to be the best that you can…  I say, don’t be good – always be great!”

That is the spirit Samantha and so many of these athletes have.  And, perhaps because of their example, it shows up in the people around them surprisingly often as well.  It makes one wonder if SO should have a duel meaning – Special Olympics and Spirit Olympics.

It seems appropriate to end with a quote from a 15-year old athlete.  When asked what she would like to say to the doctors (and all the organizations and many volunteers) at MedFest, Robin became very thoughtful.  She took the offer seriously.  Suddenly her face broke into a smile and she spoke from her heart.

“Thank you.”

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MedFest Began 15 Years Ago with a Simple Question


Fifteen years ago, Howard Pizer, Senior Executive Vice President of the White Sox and United Center, asked Special Olympics executives a simple question: “What is the biggest impediment to having more athletes participate in Special Olympics?” The answer: “Getting families to take their children to the doctor to fill out the required Special Olympics medical application.” Pizer said, “Not a problem anymore here in Chicago. We’ll have athletes come here to the United Center to get their physicals!” 

That’s how the MedFest idea was born and for 15 years has enabled thousands of Special Olympics athletes in Chicago to keep their medical applications up to date. United Center donates the space and Advocate Medical Group provides the more than 100 physicians and clinical and non-clinical staff. They are supplemented by a group of volunteers from the United Center, GE and other groups.

Dr. Rick Bones examines a Chicago athlete at the 2012 MedFest at the United Center.

Dr. Rick Bones examines a Chicago athlete at the 2012 MedFest at the United Center.

Pipe and drape partitions are set up for a series of “examining” stations in the corridor of Chicago’s United Center, home of the Chicago Blackhawks and the Chicago Bulls. Dr. Rick Bone became the point person from Advocate at the beginning and he is still the Clinical Director for MedFest. “The doctors and staff of Advocate look forward to this event each year and the interaction they’re able to have with the athletes,” Dr. Bone said.

And how about the athletes? Most of the athletes are from the Chicago Public Schools. MedFest gives them a chance to see the inside of United Center where the Bulls and Hawks play. In fact, the Chicago Blackhawks are often practicing when the athletes are sitting in the arena waiting for their turn to go through the cycle at MedFest. Their visit includes not just the medical exam, but a chance to have their eyes examined free at the Special Olympics Opening Eyes area (sponsored by Lions Clubs International) where they’ll receive free glasses if needed. They also enjoy a box lunch and receive a goodie bag to take home.

The 15th annual Chicago MedFest takes place on Nov. 13 and is supported by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, GE, Advocate Medical Group and United Center. Nearly 1,500 athletes are expected to be processed that day. The Chicago MedFest has become a model for Special Olympics MedFests that now take place at locations around the world.

2013 Chicago MedFest Sponsors


Parents & Families Greatest Resource Available to Organization


By Suzanne Thompson, SOILL Board Chair

Special Olympics is transforming the lives of its athletes through sporting events, new social experiences and ultimately allowing our athletes the opportunity to share their own personal stories. These stories reflect the passion, determination and success they demonstrate in every sporting event they participate in as well as the success they experience in their everyday lives.

Suzanne Thompson

Suzanne Thompson

We have the single greatest resource available to us as an organization and international movement and that is our parents and families. We are the people who know our athletes best. Am I certain of that? Indeed I am! I am the proud parent of a Special Olympic athlete and I know that as parents we are willing to invest our time when we can see the fabulous return on our investment. I have made the commitment to the program by serving on the SOILL Board of Directors and helping guide the program into the future.

This willingness to invest our time is why Special Olympics Illinois is developing a campaign to partner with the “experts.” Even though we live in a culture where our calendars are exploding with commitments, we know that our commitment to our athletes is time well spent.

Would you be willing to make that investment with us? We are developing ambassadors who are changing the hearts and minds of people they meet each and every day of their lives as they interact with others in their communities, improving the possibilities of employment as they learn skills required of all of us.

Courtesy, following the rules, completion of task, determination, teamwork and dedication are all required when an athlete experiences Special Olympics and also required in all of our lives, if we hope to be successful. Special Olympics is a vehicle that allows all of these qualities and characteristics to be born in its participants!

As part of our Strategic Plan and our desire to involve you in this life-changing family, we need and want to move forward working closely with you. We’ll reach for continued excellence for our athletes, finding effective and creative ways to develop and sustain the sporting events we now offer, draw more athletes into the organization, raise the number of volunteers participating and discuss new and effective ways to sustain and increase our financial supporters. Who better to help us with this than the parents who have everything invested because of our athletes?

We have a big job ahead of us, but no bigger a challenge then the challenges our athletes face every day. Let’s use them as our example and show them that their determination, persistence and success are things they learned from us, their parents!

When asked how you can help this family organization, I hope you will search your heart and mind and realize that you have so much to offer in ways that can benefit all of our athletes. With your creative ideas, willingness to commit and your firsthand knowledge of your athlete, we will make a dynamic duo. Our hope is that you will be willing to make the commitment to be a part of our team, because we know that together there is nothing we cannot do!

Special Olympics Illinois has created a family volunteer interest form. Please take a moment to look it over and let us know how you’d be willing to help make a difference in the lives of Special Olympics athletes.

Do you have questions about family involvement or Special Olympics in general? Email or Karen Milligan. Either Special Olympics staff or I will answer your questions in upcoming editions of the e-news.

Suzanne Thompson of Morris is the parent of Special Olympics athlete Caitlin and Special Olympics Illinois Chair of the Board of Directors