Even before the city council honors on June 27, the roundtable was able to bring together the athletes of the Special Olympics Evanston 2022 in the United States.
And although the post-event interview had to be virtual because several of the athletes came down with COVID-19, it was still celebratory as the spirit and enthusiasm of the Olympians never wavered.
Recapping their trip to Orlando, Florida, and their experience competing (or watching athletes compete) on a national stage, the five athletes and their families and coaches made it easy to believe the hype for the games: it was indeed the happiest place on earth. .
Ten people participated in a Zoom call on Wednesday, June 15, including: Evanston’s five Special Olympians, Caroline Colianne, Kirk Nelson, Alex Anderson, Grayson Deeney and Riley Hoffman; two of the coaches, Leonard Woodson and Matt Nelson (no relation to Kirk), and at least one group of parents, Mike and Jane Colianne, each used superlatives for the experiences. Kirk’s mother, Sandra Nelson, added her perspective in a phone call later that evening.
Each athlete was delighted to talk about their performance in their particular event, and the young men proudly wore their medals. They have enjoyed meeting athletes from other states and plan to continue their newfound friendships via social media and telephone.
Caroline especially enjoyed trading state pins with new friends and was disappointed that she didn’t receive a pin from each of the other 49, despite her best efforts.
From their morning flight to Orlando from O’Hare International Airport courtesy of United Airlines, the Illinois team members were treated like celebrities.
Wherever they went, they were congratulated and applauded. They enjoyed entering the stadium during the opening ceremony and loved the Disney characters dancing on stage.
Their competitions were tough, but they were happy with their efforts. Many events happened at the same time, so they didn’t always have a chance to cheer each other on in person, so text results had to suffice.
Kirk said the judges were strict and he was disappointed they wouldn’t let him wear his new knee brace. it was refused because it contains metal. He commented on how every time he went out to do one of his lifts, the cameras were “right in his face,” but he liked seeing himself on tape.
Riley met and had her picture taken with Miss America. He also enjoyed his first airplane flight, although he said he was less nervous on the way back. He said, “It was a good life experience.”
Grayson said he kept Riley calm during the flight, which everyone appreciated, and the best part of his week was Disney World. When asked for a detail, he simply said “everything”.
Caroline broke her personal best in each of her events and drew a lot of public support as she approached the finish line. She had her photo taken with Phil Cancro, the CEO and founder of Jersey Mike’s Subs, one of the main sponsors of the Special Olympics and the company that also provided lunch for everyone all week.
Alex spent part of the week fending off people trying to sign him for a pro team because of his throwing arm, and he met former football player and current ESPN analyst Tim Tebow.
Both coaches said how proud they were of the athletes.
Later that evening, Sandra Nelson spoke enthusiastically about the wonderful times that everyone on the Illinois team had. She said the athletes, who all worked so hard, had “the opportunity to shine, and everyone at Special Olympics and Disney made it special for them.”
As a parent, she says, “watching Kirk fully experience that kind of joy and seeing what he’s achieved, especially after his accident, is very special.” (Note: when he was in high school, Kirk was hit by a car and couldn’t move for a full year.)