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Special Olympics ceremony kicks off spring games in Chicago

Students from McGuane Park march Monday at the opening ceremony for Special Olympics at Soldier Field. At right is Ald.-elect Patrick Thompson. | Brian Jackson/For the SunTimes

Andrew Kane bounded onto the grass Monday at Soldier Field with his Special Olympics team members — 60-deep and proudly holding aloft their yellow banner with the logo of their agency, Envision Unlimited.

The 24-year-old was among more than 3,500 athletes celebrating the opening ceremonies of Special Olympics Chicago’s Spring Games, a week of track and field competitions to run Tuesday through Friday at Eckersall Stadium on the city’s Southeast Side.

“It’s real fun. I like the marching and the parade. I’m ready to win a gold medal,” said the 24-year-old, who attends a day program at Envision’s Frick Center and lives in one of its residences serving people with disabilities.

The 47th Anniversary Spring Games kicked off with the lighting of the Olympic torch, carried in by Chicago Police and Cook County Sheriff’s officers, along with members of the team from the Misericordia agency — this year’s recipients of the Keith Magnuson Spirit Award — given to an individual or agency representing joyful celebration and sportsmanship.

They were cheered on by a record 15,000 supporters who filled the stands after a two-week Social Media #FillTheField campaign. The athletes were welcomed by the Special Olympics Drum Line Band from the Ray Graham Training Center, members of the Knights of Columbus, and the event’s honorary coach, Chicago White Sox pitcher Jeff Samardzija.

“It’s a privilege as an athlete to be invited by my fellow athletes. Wishing all the athletes a great week of competition and good luck!” Samardzija said, noting he had been touched by the special athletes’ pervasive joy in a video of past games. “As a professional athlete, it’s a good reminder to remember just how fun sports are, and how it brings people together.”

White Sox Charities provides a grant that pays for the athletes’ uniforms.

Casey Hogan, president of the Special Children’s Charities/Special Olympics Chicago, was just happy it didn’t rain on the open-air ceremony at Soldier Field, where Special Olympics was born on July 20, 1968.

“It was a terrific day, especially because we were thinking it might have to be canceled, but Soldier Field is a magical place and skies did clear for us,” she said. “We’re really pleased with the attendance, which grew this year due to the hashtag campaign. The athletes work so hard year-round, and the Spring Games is a truly remarkable and inspiring morning celebrating athletes with disabilities.”

The Envision team, ranging in age from 23 to 74, chanted, “We’re on a mission! Envision!” They were “absolutely thrilled” about the upcoming games, said Donna Ennis, division director at the agency, and one of three dozen staff and family members accompanying and cheering them on.

Kane, a member of Envision’s Burners basketball team, which won the Special Olympics state championships last month at Illinois State University, said he’s ready for another victory.

“I have the basketball from when we won downstate, and my own trophy too,” he said. “I’m going to win again. Yup!”

Admission is free at the games at Eckersall, 2423 E. 82nd St., with more than 25 track and field events running from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.