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Editors note: For those who would like to follow the progress of the athletes competing in Orlando, Florida, please check in with our updates page here.
Caroline Colianne, 41, remembered well the time before she blossomed into a multi-talented Special Olympian about to compete at her second Olympic games.
“The Special Olympics actually changed my life,” she said. “When I first started … I was very shy. It helped me to be a better person and more outgoing. It definitely helped my confidence. I didn’t have a whole lot of confidence before I started.”
This was the gift the founders hoped to give the athletes 54 years ago when the first Special Olympics Summer Games were first held July 20, 1968 at Soldier Field, Chicago. The venture, funded by the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation and the Chicago Park District, was a pet project of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who knew about intellectual disabilities first hand from the struggles of her older sister, Rosemary.
Shriver via the Special Olympics took intellectual disabilities into the public arena and championed the athletes and their families, helping to change societal stigmas with the mission “to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.”
Colianne is now at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games, being held through June 12, 2022 in Orlando, Florida. She is one of five Evanston athletes at the national competition: Colianne, Riley Hoffman, 27, Grayson Deeney, 23, Alex Anderson, 30 and Kirk Nelson, 44. The five along with coach Leonard Woodson sat down for a conversation with the RoundTable at the Robert Crown Community Center.
Woodson said when Colianne first started competing, she was so nervous she would throw up before competitions. This is not unusual for athletes, but, without knowing it, it would be hard to suspect the multi-sport winning, outgoing and poised young woman had pre-competition jitters.
Yet, when Colianne competed in 2014 in four aquatics events, she medalled in each: two golds in the 50-meter medley relay and 100-meter backstroke; a silver in the 100-meter freestyle, and a bronze in the 100-meter individual relay.
She has since switched to track and field and will be competing in the shot put, the 1,500-meter and the 800-meter races. But she also plays basketball and volleyball, works as a teacher’s assistant at the McGaw YMCA Children’s Center and also teaches swimming lessons at the YMCA pool.
Hoffman and Deeney and Anderson will be competing on the flag football team, Hoffman and Deeney play receiver or running back, according to the team’s needs. Anderson is the quarterback. All three have played seriously for the past three years. When they are not practicing, or playing volleyball or basketball, Hoffman works at Lincolnwood Mall, Deeney works at FrÍo Gelato and Anderson works at Lowe’s.
Nelson, who has been weight lifting for four years, will compete in powerlifting, doing three different lifts: squat lift, bench lift and deadlift.
“The Olympics changed my life as well,” Nelson said. “It made me a better person … When I was in high school, I got hit by a car. All of my friends and coaches are amazed that I can participate in all of these sports.”
Hoffman agreed: “Oh man, I’d be a lot different. Since I was like 3-years-old, I always wanted to participate in the Special Olympics. I never knew it was gonna really come true. For a couple of years, I had a lot of obstacles. My mom died of cancer. My brother passed away in 2019. It’s kind of like I had lots of ups and downs like behavior issues and stuff. And to come this far and to do something special, this means a lot to me.”
Anderson also said the Olympics changed him: “When I was in high school, I [was] getting into trouble with law enforcement and not coming home. Being in and out of hospitals,” he said. “One of my friends introduced me to the Special Olympics to interact with people … who understand who I am.
“I have come so far in my life. And I love hanging out with these guys, talking to them and making jokes.”
This is Woodson’s third USA Special Olympics. He coached individual bocce and this year track and field. He works for Evanston’s Parks and Recreation’s Special Recreation division.
The five Evanston athletes are part of the 16-member Illinois team. All will be in Florida with four coaches, a medic and two delegation heads, who work for Special Olympics Illinois, Carolyn Klocek Cronin and Brianna Beers. The competitions will be in the Olympic ‘bubble’ used by the NBA in 2020 and televised live on ESPN.
Woodson said he has watched these young people develop and go beyond what they and others ever thought possible.
He said: “My philosophy has always been I don’t look at their disability. I take that into account in terms of what they’re able to do or not able to do. But I push them up to that limit and try to get them to break that wall a little bit to see that they can actually do a little bit more.
“I’ve had pretty much every one of these guys in here tell me that they’ve had folks when they were younger at some point making fun of them or excluding them. And now they’re doing stuff that the people who made fun of them aren’t even doing.”
The RoundTable will follow up with the group while they compete and post occasional updates. We will also check in after they return. Here are links to the competition schedule and to ESPN’s Special Olympics coverage.