Banners once swayed at Soldier Field to commemorate the inaugural Special Olympics summer games held in that stadium in 1968 with more than 1,000 competitors.
One poster featured an almost life-size photograph of an 11-year-old girl, Amelia Hernandez, sprinting to victory in the 50-yard dash, her feet a few inches off the ground.
That banner now hangs in the gymnasium at Piotrowski Park in Little Village, where Hernandez is still at it 46 years later, training for Special Olympics competitions.
“I never quit,” Hernandez said. “I just keep going.”
Special Olympics has athletic events for intellectually challenged children as well as adults, and its Illinois communications director, Corinne Zollars, couldn’t think of anyone who could match Hernandez’s participation record.
Hernandez’s next competition will be a district snowshoeing meet Dec. 13 that will be held with or without snow at Mann Park on the far South Side.
Last summer Hernandez, a youthful 58, finished fourth in powerlifting competitions at the Special Olympics USA Games in New Jersey. She bench-presses 45 to 65 pounds, and her deadlifts range from 100 to 165 pounds.
“She’s hard to catch,” Hernandez’s mother, Connie, said of her daughter’s many activities. “She’s become very independent.”
Hernandez gained that independence not only through Special Olympics but also by attending adult training programs at El Valor, a nonprofit in Pilsen known for its work with disabled adults and in early childhood education in the Latino community. Valor means courage in Spanish.
At El Valor, Hernandez received training to become a custodian and learned how to ride the bus to her job. She also blossomed as an artist.