David Harlan never gives up.
A Special Olympics Illinois athlete for the past four years, Harlan has competed — and medaled — in basketball, floor hockey, flag football, golf, tennis and bocce ball — and is now looking ahead to what his future holds on and off the field.
“Special Olympics makes me think about how I can compete better and how to be successful in life,” Harlan said. “I tell myself to never stop trying.”
Harlan’s ongoing athletic and social accomplishments have awarded him the title of this year’s featured Special Olympics Illinois athlete at the Saturday Night In Virtual Gala on Saturday, October 17.
“Nominations are considered from all regions for athletes representing all sports, and the most inspiring story is selected each year,” Special Olympics Board Chair and CEO of MAKE Corporation, Karen Wilson explained.
“It’s a very tough choice because every story and athlete is inspirational.”
Harlan draws inspiration from his role model and best friend, his father Chris Harlan. Chris first encouraged his son to compete as a Special Olympics Illinois athlete when David was in high school at Southside Occupational Academy in Chicago.
“Seeing David being able to compete has been an eye-opening experience. There has been so much progress over the years and he has really become a team leader,” Chris said. “His confidence has grown leaps and bounds.”
“David used to not be comfortable speaking to people that he doesn’t know,” Chris explained. “He would normally defer to me to answer questions and as of lately he has come into his own. He will sit there and engage with no problem. Make eye contact with those he speaks to. I have seen him grow and I try to foster that as much as possible through a support system.”
Harlan’s family serves as his biggest support system.
“The first time I played a sport I told myself I wasn’t doing that great,” Harlan said. “But my family told me don’t quit. Don’t give up and keep working. Now that’s the advice I give myself.”
Now, David is a leader for other athletes.
Taking on these additional responsibilities, a goal that once intimated Harlan, now powers his progression.
“I tell my teammates to keep trying and if you have questions to always ask,” Harlan explained.
“My favorite part of being on a team is helping. I’m the type of leader who talks to my teammates and leads by example when I compete.”
This leadership from Special Olympics athletes like David, as well as the ongoing support from various communities, dedicated families and volunteers alike, will be highlighted at this year’s gala.
“We are here to bring awareness to the athletes of Special Olympics Illinois and provide our athletes with a place for them to experience equality and inclusion,” Wilson said.
“The importance of the gala is wanting the athletes to know we are still their greatest fans. We are still out here cheering them on. To have the coronavirus impact the athletes’ ability to get together, to train with their teammates and to see their coaches is really hard, and so a night like this is meant to say, we didn’t forget you and we are going to have some fun. And we look forward to the day we can see everyone in person again.”
Family, friends and newcomers to Special Olympics Illinois who would like to join the virtual fun from home can tune in to the Special Olympics Illinois live program at www.soill.org on October 17.
The official program, beginning at 7:30 p.m., is scribed by talented writers from Second City. It will be a variety show with entertainment from an assortment of sketch comedy and with appearances by NBC Chicago’s Patrick Fazio, WXRT’s Lin Brehmer, The Daily Show’s Jordan Klepper and 8-time Olympic gold winner Apolo Ohno.
“Guests should join us early at 7 p.m. for musical entertainment from the Bono Bros Band with, members of the Freddy Jones Band, BoDeans Tributosaurus and Mr. Botto and special guest guitarist Fran Banish who will be playing a collection of covers,” Wilson said.
“There will be so much inspiration at the gala. There will be a live auction. A paddle raise. And really, whatever people can contribute truly helps. Although we won’t be downtown that Saturday night in our dresses and tuxes, we are finding a different way to engage because it’s so important to fundraise for the athletes and their programming so they can compete.”
COVID-19 has just not placed a slew of restrictions on this year’s gala, but it has also impacted Special Olympics Illinois competition. With the exception of golf, tennis, bocce ball and softball skills, all competitions have been postponed.
It’s been a challenge for athletes like Harlan to stay engaged without competing, but he is looking forward to being able to virtually celebrate all the opportunities Special Olympics has offered at the gala.
“Special Olympics has helped David become the man that we all know he was capable of,” Chris said. “It has given him the boost to really step into his destiny, and that is something I am eternally grateful for.”
This type of development outside of sports is also of critical importance to Wilson and the athletes she advocates for.
“The gala is a big deal and every competition is a big deal, but what really is the most important is the work Special Olympics Illinois does for athletes every single day of the year,” Wilson said.
Visit soill.org to learn more about Special Olympics Illinois, join the Inspire Greatness Gala on October 17 and discover how you can support athletes like David Harlan.