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What it means to be part of a team

By supporting this year’s Ducky Derby, you are joining the community surrounding Special Olympics athletes and giving thousands of people in Illinois the opportunity to grow, compete and play.

Mark Cuevas volunteering with Special Olympics in high school.

Growing up as a kid in Georgia, “sports was my release,” saidMark Cuevas, Special Olympics Illinois ambassador and recent contestant on the hit show, Love is Blind. “I was an energetic kid who, without sports, would have been bouncing all around. Sports gave me a goal – something to put my mind to. Competing was so satisfying. It kept me positive.”

He’s not alone.

For so many of us, sports provide an outlet for our energy, mentorship from coaches and a sense of belonging on a team. For Special Olympics athletes who have often been isolated for much of their lives, that connection and camaraderie is even sweeter.

Mike McLaughlin, a multi-sport Special Olympics athlete who works at Jewel in Elmhurst and has racked up more medals than he can count, points to his supportive community of Special Olympics’ staff, coaches, volunteers and donors as true champions.

“My coach, Alex, is such a nice guy,” said McLaughlin. “He helps you out when you need it, and he always helps you improve.”

Cuevas, who played football and wrestled, feels similarly. He credits his teams and coaches for not only helping him improve physically, but also for helping him grow as a person.

“When I started wrestling, I knew nothing about it, I was just athletic,” Cuevas said. “My coach took the time to not only teach me the fundamentals, but also the things behind it. He taught me about being a man, commitment—skills that apply everywhere. He invested in me—and not just as an athlete. And I stuck with it. Every year I got better. Still to this day he has my back. He’ll be at my wedding one day. That’s the kind of relationship we have.”

This is the same commitment Special Olympics coaches, staff and volunteers show athletes each and every day. And it’s this community that makes it possible for remarkable athletes to connect and compete.

“We all like to think we can do it all by ourselves, but no we can’t. There’s no way,” Cuevas added. “But it’s hard to ask for help.”

The community supporting athletes like McLaughlin includes countless Chicagoans who will purchase ducks as part of this year’s Ducky Derby. The 15th annual event, which races thousands of rubber ducks down the Chicago river, will be hosted virtually on August 6 this year.

In addition to funding programs for more than 23,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities and nearly 20,000 Young Athletes ages 2-7 with and without intellectual disabilities in Illinois, the funds raised will also help Special Olympics navigate the pandemic, which has been incredibly difficult for athletes who already feel isolated or struggle with their mental health.

“Like a lot of people, we’ve had to change the way we’re doing things,” said Breen. “We’re trying to figure out virtual programming, and we’re planning to return to practice and play later this summer. We have some challenges ahead of us, but we’re ready to meet them. Everyone’s attitudes are great.”

Chicagoans can purchase a duck for $5 at chicagoduckyderby.com — or a pack of ducks for even more opportunities to win great prizes, including a new car, $2,500, Blackhawks tickets and more.

For athletes like McLaughlin, donor support means more opportunities to compete – and win.

“I can only imagine what these athletes experience,” said Cuevas. “It’s a blissful experience to have people watching you, cheering for you. When people can experience that, they get it.”

Breen agrees, remembering what his mom told him when he was five years old, the first time he met a neighbor with an intellectual disability: “He wants the same things you do. He just wants to play.”

By supporting this year’s Ducky Derby, you are joining the community surrounding Special Olympics athletes and giving thousands of people in Illinois the opportunity to grow, compete and play.

Visit chicagoduckyderby.com to learn more about Special Olympics Illinois, the Chicago Ducky Derby on August 6 and how you can purchase ducks to support athletes like Mike McLaughlin.