4,500 Special Olympic athletes file through Soldier Field for opening ceremonies

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Soldier Field hosted the opening ceremonies for this year’s spring games. | Madeline Kenney/Sun-Times

Despite the howling winds, a large torch located near the 50-yard line at Soldier Field was eventually lit Thursday, which means the 2018 Special Olympics spring games — a weeklong track and field meet — are officially underway.

Although the first event doesn’t take place until Monday, 4,500 Special Olympic athletes from 122 Chicago Public Schools and 23 Park Districts were honored in the opening ceremonies on Thursday. The athletes walked across the field, giving high-fives and fist bumps to volunteers who were acting like cheerleaders.

Among those volunteers were Olympic gold medalist Kendall Coyne and former White Sox player Harold Baines, who were named honorary team captains. The two had the opportunity to meet and take pictures with athletes, while sharing their stories.

“I think they’re going to inspire me more so than I’m going to inspire them,” Baines said.

Kendall Coyne posed with a group of Special Olympic athletes before the opening ceremonies. | Madeline Kenney/Sun-Times

Kendall Coyne posed with a group of Special Olympic athletes before the opening ceremonies. | Madeline Kenney/Sun-Times

Mark Hopp, 33, is an example of how important these games are for the athletes.

Hopp has been participating in Special Olympics for the last 16 years and said the program has helped him find a sense of purpose while having fun and meeting new people.

“I love it. It’s fun. I’m with all my friends and I have great coaches that are proud of us,” said Hopp, who will be participating in the 100-meter run, 4×4 relay run along with shot put.

“Special Olympics is my life.”

Mark Hopp said he joined Special Olympics in 2002. | Madeline Kenney/Sun-Times

Mark Hopp said he joined Special Olympics in 2002. | Madeline Kenney/Sun-Times

Juna Kennedy, who is a student at South Side Occupational Academy, agreed with Hopp and added that Special Olympics has given her confidence and opportunities that she wouldn’t have had otherwise.

This year’s games are even more special given the fact it’s the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics, which originally began in Chicago.

Special Olympics of Chicago President Kevin Magnuson has watched the organization grow over the last 15 years. He was overwhelmed by the amount of support the athletes received during the opening ceremonies.

“The smiles, the hugs and the high-fives just make this day really special,” Magnuson said.

“To say inspiring is an understatement,” Magnuson continued. “The sports that they play and the activities that they perform give them a sense of community and purpose and the health that they get because of it … and the friendship that they build, the community overall is just amazing.”

Some of the Chicago professional sports teams included the Bears, White Sox, Windy City Bulls, Bandits and Blackhawks made their presence known at the opening ceremonies.

Over the years, the White Sox, who decided to be a sponsor for this year’s games, donated in excess of $500,000 to Special Children’s Charities, the fundraising partner of Chicago Special Olympics.

Although the Cubs were one of the only Chicago professional sports team noticeably missing from Thursday’s festivities, team chairman Tom Ricketts announced Wednesday that the Cubs donated $100,000 to Special Olympics this year, which only adds to the nearly $2 million they’ve donated to the Chicago Park District programs over the last five years.

“It’s something we’ve always focused on,” Ricketts said. “It just feels the right place to be and we’re happy to support the program.”

The spring games begin Monday at 10 a.m. and will go through Friday at Dunbar Park.

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