Special Olympics a hit in Midway debut

By Tim Murphy

There’s an old saying, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

The meaning has been worn to almost nothing over the years as commentators and coaches abuse it with increasing regularity. But every once in a while, it’s actually true.

In an event made possible by the tireless contributions of U of C student volunteers and the inspiring participation of the competitors involved, the Chicago Parks district held its annual Special Olympics Soccer tournament on the Midway Saturday. Featuring individual skills competitions to go with six-on-six matches, the day was a sparkling success in its first year on campus.

Blessed with a rarity of all rarities—good weather in the Windy City—the day went off better than anyone could have anticipated. Organizers had expected 30 percent of the 180 registered volunteers to be no-shows, but when the dust settled Saturday, 88 percent of volunteers who had signed up rendered their services. On top of that, additional students showed up in the morning of to contribute in whatever way they could.

While the action on the field intensified as teams battled it out for trophies, the camaraderie and bond between athletes and competitors was only strengthened. In a refreshing contrast to the cutthroat world of sports that has filtered down to pee-wee leagues, each athlete was rightly treated as a winner just for showing up. With positive energy permeating through a Midway that had miraculously recovered from an onslaught of rain earlier in the week, there were more than enough congratulations to go around.

“You can’t go to a Special Olympics event and not expect to get tons of hugs and high fives,” said fourth-year Bridget Wild, who led the effort to organize the event. “I’ve been hugged out today.”

The scene at the awards area was equally uplifting. While trophies and medals were given out for first-, second-, and third-place finishes, all athletes received at least a medal of participation for their efforts. After receiving an award, most broke into jack-o-lantern–sized grins as they soaked in the applause of their competitors, family, and fans.

“All the athletes really enjoyed it,” said third-year Krista Christophe, who helped hand out medals at the award area. “Seeing them all so revved up was probably the most enjoyable part for me.”

“Everything was so lively. Everyone seemed really happy,” said first-year Jenn Romero. “It didn’t feel like a chore at all.”

The event came about as the result of a tireless effort by Wild to bring the program to Hyde Park. As the school’s contact for the Special Olympics, she had helped to organize groups of students to help out at similar events at UIC and other locations. Finally, last October, she got the go-ahead, and with the full backing of the Park District, everything fell into place. The details such as permits and police details that so often derail grandiose plans were eliminated, allowing Wild to focus on organizing campus for the big event.

“It was something we had been talking about for about a year and half,” Wild said. “Last February or March it became official and so in April I contacted all the varsity coaches. I did it in baby steps. It was like ‘ask and you shall receive.’”

Quick to throw their support behind the tournament, the Maroons varsity athletes, along with other student organizations such as the Community Service Center, pitched in with the work Saturday. When the referees who had been scheduled to appear pulled out after double booking, the student volunteers saved the day by grabbing whistles of their own and calling the games.

Unable to attend the main event, the wrestling team went to the Midway after their practice on Friday, and, led by none other than their head coach, Leo Kocher, proceeded to move barriers into their proper location, not stopping until the job was done. Members of the football team, serving as athlete escorts in the morning, received rave reviews for their enthusiasm.

“The football team was a highlight for everyone. They were holding hands, walking their athletes around—they owned their job,” Wild said. “They did extremely well.”

While the city of Chicago hosted the first International Special Olympic games in 1968, the University had played only a small role in the development of the program, previously hosting smaller events.

Thanks to the good sportsmanship and teamwork of the competitors and the tireless efforts of student volunteers, the school all but assured that the tournament will return to the Midway next fall.