Jana Kennedy-Long can be easy to miss.
Standing at about 5 feet tall, she is a few inches shy of the camera equipment she regularly operates at monthly tapings of a show for CAN-TV. Yet her outsized talents have a way of commanding a lot of attention — whether it’s at work, winning gold medals at the Special Olympics or belting out songs on stage.
“She’s a tiny little thing but such an incredible athlete and singer — so versatile,” said Pamela Munizzi, Special Olympics coordinator for Chicago Public Schools.
Kennedy-Long is currently busy warming up for her highest-profile gig yet: singing the national anthem at the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 13th. “I’m so excited. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about it, and it’s gonna be a thrill,” she said.
It’s an important achievement for both Kennedy-Long and Special Olympics Chicago, said Munizzi.
“The fact that she’s going to be up there in front of 45,000-plus people at this huge event and the exposure to her talent and the challenges she faces as a Special Olympian ... this is a knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark kind of moment,” said Munizzi.
Gold medal skier
It helps that the 21-year-old has a knack for clutch performances in unfamiliar situations.
The youngest of seven siblings growing up on the South Side, Kennedy-Long had never skied before in her life except a short test run prior to winning a gold medal in alpine skiing at a Special Olympics state competition at Chestnut Mountain Resort in Galena.
“I didn’t know if I was gonna be able to ski, but I tried it out and I loved it,” she said. “When I was on that hill, I tried to give myself confidence, and I would try to say to myself, ‘You’ve done so much. You are able to win. You are able to conquer this.’ ”
In her four years as a Special Olympian, Kennedy-Long has also successfully competed in golf, track and field, tennis, floor hockey, soccer and other sports. She’s also a vet of national anthem performances at local events such as the Polar Plunge and the opening ceremonies before the soccer matches for last year’s Special Olympics in Chicago.
When she’s not competing or singing, Kennedy-Long, who lives with her grandmother in Marquette Park, attends Southside Occupational Academy. It’s a post-high school transition center for students with special needs. Through the academy, she’s landed a job as a server at the Museum of Science and Industry’s food court.
“It’s fun. I really enjoy working there,” she says.
CAN-TV crew member
Kennedy-Long is also a member of the Special Olympics CAN-TV crew, which produces a monthly, 30-minute public access television show about the sports organization — which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018. She’s worked both behind the scenes as a camera operator, in the control and sound booth, and has served as an on-air host and interviewer.
“It’s part of what makes Special Olympics Chicago so unique,” said Heather Kundert, executive director of Special Children’s Charities/Special Olympics Chicago.
A few years ago, Kennedy-Long showed some anxiousness while on camera, on stage or in sports competitions, but no longer, said Munizzi.
“She was nervous in the beginning. She’s incredibly confident now. She’s like ‘A Star Is Born.’ ”