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Sports Saturday

4 athletes share why Special Olympics is important to them

Kendall Fischer waves at the crowd after she won a gold medal. | Provided

Though the opening ceremony for the 51st annual Special Olympics spring games was cancelled Thursday due to inclement weather, the show will still go on.

Starting Monday, nearly 5,000 Special Olympics athletes will compete in more than 25 track and field events.

The games begin more than a month after Education Secretary Betsy Devos proposed an $18 million cut to Special Olympics. Devos’s proposal sparked widespread backlash from advocates, lawmakers and celebrities. As a result, President Donald Trump said he wouldn’t cut Special Olympics from the federal budget.

Special Olympics is an inclusive environment that helps athletes of all ages learn valuable life skills and foster lifelong relationships. Four athletes shared with the Sun-Times why Special Olympics is important to them and how it’s transformed their lives:

Susie Cruz

Special Olympics has been a “magical” experience for Gloria Cruz’s family.

Gloria has two children who participate in Special Olympics. Her daughter, Susie, has a speech and learning disability, and her son, Danny, has Down syndrome.

“As a parent, it’s like one door opens when they do Special Olympics,” Gloria said. “They have an opportunity to do a lot of stuff they wouldn’t have been able to before, and that makes me so happy. We’re very blessed that this organization exists.”

Susie’s favorite Special Olympics memory from over the last two years is winning gold medals in swimming, basketball, volleyball and track and field.

“When the audience cheers for me, I feel like I did it,” said Susie, who will turn 12 this month. “It makes me really happy and proud.”

Susie’s gold medals are now on display in her bedroom. When guests come, Susie proudly shows them her growing collection.

Gloria has seen firsthand a change in her daughter’s demeanor since she’s joined Special Olympics.

“Susie is more confident in herself because of Special Olympics and to me, it means a lot,” Gloria said. “This access has allowed her to become more confident in herself and to be more social.”

Susie also said Special Olympics makes her feel more self-assured.

“Special Olympics makes me feel more like me,” she said. “Special Olympics helps me make new friends. I also like that it let’s me try out new sports.”

Danny Brouder

Danny Brouder was born without the left side of his heart, a condition known as hypoplastic left heart syndrome. As a result, he’s had three open heart surgeries. Danny also has Kabuki syndrome, which has affected his physical development and caused him to have some cognitive disabilities.

Despite the adversity, Danny finds a reason to smile every day, and he’s quick with a knock-knock joke.

Danny Brouder said he’s most looking forward to winning a medal at the 2019 Special Olympics spring games. | Provided
Danny Brouder said he’s most looking forward to winning a medal at the 2019 Special Olympics spring games. | Provided

Danny is energetic like most 10-year-olds. His mother, Molly, described him as funny and confident, and said he enjoys cheering on his friends at Special Olympics.

“I know the alphabet, too,” Danny interjected proudly.

For the last three years, Danny, who goes to school in Mt. Greenwood, has played multiple sports through Special Olympics, including softball, volleyball and flag football. His favorite sport, though, is soccer because he likes to kick the ball as hard as he can.

Danny will be competing at the spring games next week. He’s most looking forward to the medals, of course.

“He knows people are watching and going to be cheering him on,” Molly said. “So he tries to do his best. And he also knows the difference between getting medal and a ribbon.”

Special Olympics is extremely important to the Brouder family because it gives Danny opportunities he wouldn’t have had.

“We have two older kids that play sports through school, and so it’s special that Danny can do that, too,” Molly said. “Special Olympics is great because it allows him to be proud of himself … It also does such a great job at making them feel like they’re athletes and like everyone else.”

Kendall Fischer

Kendall Fischer has the rare ability to brighten a room as soon as she walks in. Her smile is contagious.

Fischer’s confidence and vocal leadership have grown exponentially over the years thanks to Special Olympics, her coach Valonda Smith said.

Fischer, who has a cognitive disability, participates in numerous sports through the Douglas Park District’s Special Olympics program, including snowshoeing, softball, track and field, basketball and bowling.

“She’s 40, but to see her run and compete in these activities as though she’s 19 is amazing,” Smith said.

Fischer’s favorite sport is snowshoeing. In the past, she’s won first place at the district competition, which allowed her the opportunity to compete at the state meet.

“It feels great,” Fischer said of winning a gold medal. “You stand on these boxes beside second and third place. And you get to wave at the crowd.”

When she’s not participating in sports, Fischer works part-time at the Homan Square community center. She enjoys working with children and helping them do crafts.

Special Olympics has been a transformative experience for Fischer. She’s happy that she’s been able to make lifelong friends through it.

“Special Olympics helps us keep ourselves engaged and keep ourselves busy and do other events,” she said. “It helped me with a lot of things. I’m proud to be able to do something that I enjoy and hanging out with my friends.”

Ed Doby

A few weeks ago, Ed Doby and his teammates won first place in a volleyball tournament. He smiled as he was presented his gold medal and waved at the cheering fans.

“I love volleyball,” Doby said.

But that’s not the only sport he enjoys doing.

Ed Doby smiles for a picture. | Provided
Ed Doby smiles for a picture. | Provided

Doby, who is 44 and has been participating in Special Olympics since 1991, plays basketball, soccer, softball and bowling. He also runs track and field.

“I do everything,” he said.

Special Olympics has been an important part of Doby’s life over the past 28 years.

“It helps me as a person become more confident,” he said. “And it’s brought about 15 or 20 really good friends into my life.”

Doby, who has a cognitive disability, will be competing in the 100-meter and 400-meter races at this year’s spring games.

“It’s always fun whether we win or lose,” Doby said.

But he said it’s always better when he’s victorious.

“We love getting medals,” Doby said.