GAGE PARK — The 2018 Special Olympics Spring Games are officially underway, and the athletes on the Gage Park Jazz are ready.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the iconic competition for adults and children with intellectual disabilities.
On Thursday, a grand ceremony featuring 4,500 athletes was held at Soldier Field in advance of the local Spring Games, being played in Dunbar Park.
The Gage Park Jazz are one of Chicago’s representatives.
Katie Hart, a special recreation coordinator, has coached the athletes at Gage Park for 15 years.
The team plays 13 sports a year including basketball, flag football, softball, track and field among others. It’s priceless to see the faces of the participants following a big win, Hart said.
“It’s great to see them improve and knowing that they are competitive and that there’s always that chance that if they come in and give 100% they have a chance at winning,” she said.
The core members of Gage Park’s team have been competing side-by-side with each other for five years, Hart said. Before joining the team, athletes interested in participating typically engage in two weeks of practice before leading up to a tryout after which teams are selected and practices begin.
Athletes eight years old and up are required to fill out an interest form issued by Special Olympics Illinois before participating. Children younger than eight may participate in the Young Athletes Program.
Hart said leading up to major competitions like the Spring Games where there’s sure to be fan support comes with excitement. She said teams competing in the Spring Games will follow the rules and guidelines set by the Illinois High School Association.
“I love it! I am a competitive person,” she said. “This is probably one of the greatest jobs; I get to play sports for a living.”
This year Hart will have 25 athletes competing in the Spring Games. She anticipates team standouts like Jamie McDowell, Robbie Wade and Javon Young will perform at a high level in the high jump and 800 meter run and Kiki Kelly will finish high in the 100 meter walk race.
McDowell’s athletic prowess extends to the basketball as he has accepted an opportunity to play for the Special Olympics Team Illinois for the national competition in Seattle this summer. McDowell will be traveling with other players and coaches from across Illinois for an all-expense paid trip. Hart said he will receive a sendoff before the competition which is scheduled for June 30 through July 8.
Competing outside of Chicago isn’t foreign to members of Hart’s team. In years past, the squad traveled to compete in cities, including Cleveland, thanks to funding through Special Children’s Charities. That organization acts as the fundraiser division of Special Olympics Chicago. This year one of Special Children’s Charities staple fundraising events, the Polar Plunge, raised $1.6 million in total donations.
Given the nature of the Special Olympics, measuring success and progress among the athletes varies. Hart said her athletes are divided into teams defined by age and skill level in most cases. For some athletes, it’s all about evaluating their teamwork and skills. For others, consistency toward a singular goal may be paramount, she said.
Hart shared the story of Jasmine Mayfield, one of her late athletes who worked tirelessly for four years attempting to make a shot on a basketball goal before ultimately succeeding. In honor of Mayfield the name of Gage Park’s team became the Gage Park Jazz.
“They’re always told ‘you can’t’,” she said. “We don’t believe in that. You can try and you can do it. It may take you a little long but you can do it.”
Just like for any sports team, tough days have come for the Gage Park Jazz. Hart said it’s best to listen and to be a friend to her athletes in those instances. For some of her athletes, just to be able to be active and develop friendships while competing can be meaningful.
Despite the team’s on-the-field success, Hart said wishes for more community support.
She said the team is always looking for volunteers, cheer support and financial support.
“The athletes love when people come cheer them,” she said.
Cory Williams, 27, a spokesman of the team, said his team’s hard work ethic will led to success in this year’s Spring Games.
“We’re in the weight room most of the time, we run on the track, build up for basketball and football season,” he said. “Sometimes if our coach isn’t here we go in the weight room and work and lift and workout.”
The Englewood native exuded confidence and his teammates echoed the sentiment. He said on competition days there isn’t a sense of fear or anxiousness.
“Ain’t no intimidation around here,” he laughed. “We have a good team right here. We work hard, play as a team, play together. It can’t be a one man show. It has to be a team effort.”
Anthony Triplett, 31, who has been coached by Hart for several years, is looking forward to events like long jump, high jump, and shot put.
“It’s going to feel good to compete,” he said.
Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) called the opening ceremony of the 2018 Special Olympics Illinois Spring Games “historic.” Although he did call the Gage Park Jazz by name, the alderman said it was “great” to see many of his schools and parks participating in the Spring Games. He said he’s been a longtime supporter of the Special Olympics as he participated in the Polar Plunge in 2016 and 2017.
“I have been trying to find new ways to team up to make sure to have not just a one day event but that we have as much opportunity for those in need,” he said.
The 2018 Special Olympics Illinois Spring Games kicked-off in Region last week in Dunbar Park. The Spring Games will conclude on May 11.