Mike McLaughlin is a champion.
A Special Olympics athlete for more than 30 years,McLaughlin has competed — and medaled — in swimming, track and field, basketball, bowling, softball, tennis, volleyball, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing over his athletic career — and he has no plans to slow down.
McLaughlin grew up in Elmhurst and graduated from York High School, where he quickly developed a love of sports. “I like being competitive,” he says, “and I like being outdoors with my teammates.”
Over the last three decades, his participation on Special Olympics teams has taken him to countless state tournaments, including an impressive run with his basketball team last winter, and even to Alaska to compete in cross-country skiing in the late 90s. And when asked how many medals he’s collected, he said, “Oh, a lot. It’s impossible to count.”
This summer, he’s playing bocce—trying his hand at a new sport that, up until recently, he had never even heard of. As he learns a new game and connects with a new team, he’s taking his own advice that he offers younger Special Olympics athletes: “You can’t get discouraged. You just have to stick with it. You have to work hard. It takes time.”
“Mike is an amazing guy,” said Special Olympics Illinois President and CEO Dave Breen. “He participates in so many sports and he never lets anything get in his way. He has one of the best attitudes I’ve ever seen. He gets up every day, with all the obstacles and challenges he might face, and he never complains.”
“We should do everything we can to share Mike’s attitude, courage and determination. It changes people. It’s changed me.”
“He has so much positivity — so much energy,” added Mark Cuevas, Special Olympics spokesperson and recent contestant on the hit show, Love is Blind. “I’m usually the energetic person in the room, so when I see someone else who is so happy, it makes me feel happy, too.”
In addition to his many athletic pursuits, McLaughlin works at Jewel in Elmhurst — a job he’s held for 18 years where, these days, his work is more important than ever. “I’man essential worker,” he says. A lifelong Chicagoan, he’s also a fan of country music, Portillo’s and the Cubs.
And this summer, Mike McLaughlin has a new title: Special Olympics Illinois’ Ducky Derby Ambassador.
The Chicago Duck Derby is a signature annual fundraiser benefiting Special Olympics Illinois, sending thousands of rubber ducks in a race down the Chicago river. And while this year’s festivities on August 6 are virtual, it will still be a big celebration.
“It’s our 15th year, and we are hoping to sell 60,000 ducks,” said Breen. Chicagoans can purchase individual ducks for $5, or select packs of ducks for more chances to win great prizes, including a new car, $2,500, Blackhawks tickets and more.
“The Duck Derby is more than an event — it’s an opportunity for everyone to come together to pitch in,” Cuevas added. “The $5 you give isn’t just for a duck, it’s to build awareness. You’re investing in the people putting in the hard work to make this keep going; to make sure these athletes can do what they love to do.”
In addition to serving more than 23,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities and nearly 20,000 Young Athletes ages 2-7 with and without intellectual disabilities in Illinois, Special Olympics is building relationships with Chicago Public Schools and city colleges to expand their footprint and serve even more athletes likeMike McLaughlin.
“I often hear that Special Olympics athletes are champions,”McLaughlin said. “That’s a very nice compliment, but I really think that it is the staff, volunteer and donors who are the champions. Nothing can happen without involvement from volunteers and donors.”
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.