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For one Illinois athlete, Special Olympics go beyond sports. They’re his voice.

Tony Hill | Special Olympics photo

On July 21, Chicago will celebrate 50 years of Special Olympics with artists including Chance the Rapper, Usher, Smokey Robinson and Jason Mraz.

Special Olympics athlete and Illinois native Tony Hill, 55, has been competing in the games longer than most of them have been alive.

Hill, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, participated in his first competition in 1974 — only six years after founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver welcomed the first wave of athletes with disabilities to Chicago. Standing in Soldier Field, she announced Special Olympics oath, one that has shaped Hill’s life: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

“Special Olympics changed my life totally,” Hill said. “It built up my faith knowing that I can do anything just like anybody else.”

But his relationship with Special Olympics goes far beyond the athletics.

In 2004, Hill began a two-year term as a global messenger chosen to represent and speak about the games’ mission. Not long after, he became a Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger, traveling to countries like Japan and Panama to be a face of Special Olympics. He has also served on the state Special Olympics board.

Dave Breen, CEO of Special Olympics Illinois, said Hill helped pave the way to work with the East St. Louis school district, where he grew up. He recalls Hill receiving a standing ovation after speaking to an audience of special education teachers and students.

Tony Hill | Special Olympics photo
Tony Hill | Special Olympics photo

For Hill, the highlight of his 40-plus years with the organization has been meeting new people and engaging with others who have disabilities.

“I used to be very shy,” Hill said. He was living in a group home for children with disabilities when he first competed as an athlete. “Special Olympics opened up my eyes to let me see I was not the only one with a disability.”

These days, Hill is far from shy, sporting an infectious smile and aura that reaches everyone. Breen describes him as “one of the most happy guys I’ve ever been around,” not to mention one of the most resilient.

Since he was 11, Hill has competed and won medals in a range of sports, including golf, wheelchair races and, his favorite, bowling. Outside Special Olympics, however, he has defeated his own set of challenges, not least of which was supporting himself after moving out of a group home.

He recalls balancing two jobs, one at a weekend furniture store and another at a granite and stone warehouse, and waking up at 2 a.m. to catch the four or five buses it took him to get to work.

“I was determined because a lot of people told me I couldn’t live on my own,” Hill said. “So I had to tell myself I can do it. And the oaths that we say for Special Olympics … sometimes I would say that to myself.”

Breen describes Hill as an “amazing spirit” who has been able to overcome obstacles with an “unbelievable attitude.”

Hill, who now lives in downstate Belleville, may attend Chicago’s 50th anniversary celebration in July. He does not compete as often as he used to, he said, rather serving more a representative role sharing his story and encouraging athletes.

Ultimately, he hopes Special Olympics will “keep it going even after I’m gone,” as an organization that helps athletes be themselves.

“You still have that stigma saying (children with disabilities) can’t do anything,” he said. “Special Olympics helps the athletes speak for themselves. … They helped me speak for myself.”

Tony Hill | Special Olympics photo
Tony Hill | Special Olympics photo

This story is part of a special section commemorating the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics. Special Olympics staffers and Chicago Sun-Times journalists collaborated in the production of this section.

Read more about Special Olympics:

The Special Olympics legacy: How it all began in Chicago

Special Olympics ‘5 for 50’: 5 athletes for 50 years — and a bonus

Soccer tourney, torch run and Chance the Rapper all part of Special Olympics’ big Chicago celebration

50 years, 50 videos: A visual celebration of the Special Olympics

The future of Special Olympics: Come join the inclusion revolution

For Daniel Smrokowski, chronicling SO athletes’ journeys is a study in empowerment

Miles, medals, an ESPY and a movie mark Loretta Claiborne’s Special Olympics journey

Beating the odds: 1st Special Olympian in Chicago sports hall of fame

Special Olympics Eternal Flame of Hope Monument set for Soldier Field site

New book spotlights Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics