Special Olympics Spring Games hosts thousands of Chicago participants: ‘Gold medals can take them places’

More than 2,000 children and adults with intellectual disabilities are competing this week in the Special Olympics Spring Games.

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One winning competitor flashes a gold medal Tuesday at Dunbar Park during the Chicago Special Olympics.

Anna Mathews, one winning competitor flashes a gold medal Tuesday at Dunbar Park during the Chicago Special Olympics.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“I’ve got this,” 21-year-old Anna Mathews says as she sits on a bench at Dunbar Park on Tuesday. She’s nervous, but confident. More than 15 years participating in the Chicago Special Olympics and 50-plus gold medals help, too.

As the starter pistol goes off for the 100 meter dash, Mathews takes off and before long she speeds ahead her competitors. She wins the race, and with that gold medal she will head down to Bloomington, Illinois, in June for the statewide competition.

This week will see 2,092 competitors with intellectual disabilities from ages 8 to 65 race in a variety of track and field events for the Spring Games, said Melissa Garritano, managing director of Special Olympics Illinois. The athletes train and compete year-round, but the spring games — which involve 25 events —are major.

Created by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the first ever Special Olympics was held in Chicago at Soldier Field in 1968, and is now an international competition.

“We have the world games coming up in June,” said Garritano. “We have a couple athletes from Illinois going to Berlin for a week, competing over there. They know these gold medals can take them places.”

Typical track and field races like meter dashes and shot put, along with wheelchair races, tennis ball throws and assisted races, are among events this week during the Special Olympics Spring Games.

Typical track and field races like meter dashes and shot put, along with wheelchair races, tennis ball throws and assisted races, are among events this week during the Special Olympics Spring Games.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Typical track and field races like meter dashes and shot put, along with wheelchair races, tennis ball throws and assisted races, are among events this week.

Different parts of the Chicagoland area compete, as well as Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Park District teams. But overall the four-day-long competition allows everyone to cheer on one another and bond.

About 1400 athletes competed Tuesday, Garritano says.

“They love the medals; if they get a ribbon they’re not too happy,” Garritano laughed.

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Kara McElligott poses for a portrait after a race in the 100m race at the 2023 Spring Special Olympics Games at Dunbar Park on Tuesday, May 9, 2023.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Kara McElligott got a participation ribbon for her first race — a 100 meter. It’s the 35-year-old’s second year competing.

“I just love the whole atmosphere,” McElligott said. “It doesn’t bother me if I don’t win; I’m just going to compete. I’m just gonna have fun.”

McElligott, a Beverly resident, was at the state competition last year, and loves being able to meet new friends .

“I wish I could get everyone like me to do what I do, I really do,” she added. “It’s a great experience. You’re not just cheering for yourself, you’re cheering for your family.”

Kara’s mother, Mary, coached track and field for 15 years and couldn’t convince her daughter to join the sport. Eventually a family friend got her into it.

“She has blossomed with it,” Mary McElligott said. “She gets very nervous in the morning and she gets excited. But it’s such an awesome thing and it’s opened so many doors for her.”

Mariah Rush is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.

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