Athletes with disabilities converge on Chicago suburbs

July 20, 2010 (CHICAGO)

This is its 26th year and the first time Illinois plays host. The competitions are held in Olympic-style events, including track, field pentathlon, swimming, archery, table tennis, basketball and weightlifting.

The National Junior Disability Championships is considered the most prestigious national event for those ages 6-21 with physical and visual disability. It is a qualifier to the U.S. Paralympic Team.

The pentathlon competition took place Tuesday morning at Deerfield High School. Fourteen-year-old Hannah McFadden, an amputee from Maryland, not only competes in track but a number of other sports

"It is something to work hard for and gives you something to look forward to," said McFadden.

"She has a lot of pride and will do her best to perform the best," said Gerry Herman, McFadden's coach.

There are over 300 athletes from around the country competing in seven sports. Athletes must qualify at regional events to compete at this event.

Seventeen-year-old Kelsey Haas is competing in track, field, weightlifting and basketball.

"I think it's important, because it's a great way to interact with other disabled people and basically compete to get into the Paralympics," said Haas.

"'I'm so happy for her. She is an inspiration, she really is for me," said Mitchell Haas, Kelsey's mother.

"The benefits from the games are immense: self-esteem, the camaraderie, the friendship," said Cindy Housner, NJDC executive director.

The championships allow competitors to develop friendships.

This is the sixth year that 17-year-old Jonathon Heider of Wisconsin has competed in swimming and basketball.

"It is important to be noticed for all the hard work I put in and noticed for all our hard work to get here, and junior nationals is one of those places that is perfect for getting to know people," said Heider.

"Before this, Jonathon really did not have the fire to compete. He has gone beyond what we thought he would do, to the point where he will be training at the Olympic training center in the fall," said Linn Heider, Jonathon's mother.

The National Junior Disability Championships gives these athletes an opportunity to shine in their abilities and not focus on their disabilities. It is inspirational to see firsthand how they have excelled at their sport despite the physical or visual challenges they face.

The executive director says she hopes the event also inspires those who are currently disabled but do not participate in recreational sports to participate.

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