Even before their City Council honors on June 27, the RoundTable was able to corral the Evanston 2022 Special Olympics USA Games athletes.

And while the post-event interview needed to be virtual because several of the athletes came down with COVID-19, it was still celebratory as the spirits and enthusiasm of the Olympians never flagged.

Evanston’s Special Olympic athletes. Credit: 2022 Special Olympics USA Games website. Credit: Submitted

Recapping their journey to Orlando, Florida, and their experience of competing (or watching athletes compete) on a national stage, the five athletes and their families and coaches made it easy to believe the hype for the games: It was indeed the happiest place on earth.

Ten people were part of a Zoom call Wednesday, June 15, including all five Evanston Special Olympians – Caroline Colianne, Kirk Nelson, Alex Anderson, Grayson Deeney and Riley Hoffman; two coaches, Leonard Woodson and Matt Nelson (no relation to Kirk); and at least one set of parents, Mike and Jane Colianne; each person used superlatives to describe the experiences. Kirk’s mom, Sandra Nelson, added her point of view in a phone call later that evening.

Each athlete was excited to talk about their performance in their particular event, and the young men proudly wore their medals. They enjoyed meeting athletes from other states and plan to continue the new friendships via social media and telephone.

Caroline especially enjoyed trading state pins with new friends, and was disappointed she didn’t get a pin from each of the other 49, despite her best effort. 

Starting with their early-morning flight to Orlando from O’Hare Airport courtesy of United Airlines, the members of the Illinois team were treated like celebrities.

Everywhere they went, they were congratulated and applauded. They enjoyed walking into the stadium during the opening ceremony and loved the dancing Disney characters on stage.

Their competitions were tough, but they were pleased with their efforts. Many of the events were held at the same time so they didn’t always have a chance to cheer for one another in person, so texting results had to suffice.

Kirk said the judges were strict, and he was disappointed they didn’t let him wear his new knee brace; it was disallowed because it has metal in it. He commented how every time he came out to do one of his lifts, the cameras were “right in his face,” but he enjoyed seeing himself on tape.

Riley met and had his picture taken with Miss America. He also enjoyed his first airplane flight, although he said he was less nervous on the return trip. He said, “It was a good life experience.” 

Grayson said he kept Riley calm during the flight, which everyone appreciated, and the best part of his week was Disney World. When asked for a specific, he simply said “everything.”

Caroline beat her personal best time in each of her events and drew a lot of crowd support as she approached the finish line. She had her photo taken with Peter Cancro, the Chief Executive Officer and founder of Jersey Mike’s Subs, a major sponsor of the Special Olympics and the company that also provided lunch to everyone all week. 

Alex spent part of the week fending off people trying to draft him for a professional team because of his throwing arm, and he met Tim Tebow, former NFL football player and current ESPN analyst.

Alex Anderson was one of five Evanston competitor at the Special Olympics 2022 USA Games Credit: Illinois Special Olympics

Both coaches said how proud they were of the athletes.

Later that evening, Sandra Nelson spoke glowingly about what a wonderful time everyone on the Illinois team had. She said the athletes, all of whom have worked so hard, had “an opportunity to shine, and everyone at Special Olympics and Disney made it special for them.”

As a parent, she said, “watching Kirk fully experience this kind of joy and to see what he has accomplished, especially after his accident, is very special.” (Note: when he was in high school, Kirk was hit by a car and was non-ambulatory for a full year.)

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...