Athletes from around the world traveled to the Windy City to compete in the first-ever Special Olympics Unified Cup, which is a week-long soccer tournament combining Special Olympians and Unified partners in intense competition.
"A Unified partner is somebody that is interested in soccer and wants to be playing with some of our Special Olympics athletes. A Unified partner is an equally-contributing member of the team, just like our Special Olympics athletes," Special Olympics Director of Youth Initiative Jennifer Marcello said.
Athletes with and without intellectual disabilities make up the men's and women's teams from Illinois that will take on teams from around the world.
"It's Illinois versus the world! That's what we're kind of saying. There are three male teams from the United States and one female team. We actually have the only female team representing the United States," Marcello said.
Cori Hoekstra is a senior at Homewood Flossmoor High School and has been volunteering with the Special Olympics since she was 6 years old. She said she's ready and excited to take part in the games as a Unified partner.
"It's exciting! It's been a great experience, not only getting to know not only some of the partners on the team and Unified athletes, but now getting to know other countries that are also participating in it, is fun," Hoekstra said.
This is the moment long-time Special Olympian Ryan McDonough has been waiting for.
"One of the most things I'm excited about is, I've seen the variety of competition. This is something that we don't get to experience often. Who says they get to play France in their first round? Not often you can say that at any time of the day," McDonough said. "I feel like we are ready for it and we can beat anyone in our way."
"It's been an extraordinary journey so far for us. We all came together as strangers, and now we are no less than family. All brothers. We're very happy to be here. A lot of us are traveling for the first time. The look on their faces make it all worth it," said Moran Singh of Team Jamaica.
Cassandra Ayala, of Team USA, said her favorite part about participating in the Unified Cup is getting to play with her friends and supporting her team.
"I want to be a special education teacher, so I thought this was cool - and I love soccer," said Olivia Masi of Team USA.
440 athletes from 24 countries are here to compete and connect for soccer supremacy.
"We are very happy to be here. A lot of us are traveling for the first time and just the look on their faces makes it all worth it," said Moran Singh, a member of Team Jamaica.
He was joined at a morning press availability by players from other countries including Italy's Serigne Mbacke Diop.
"I am very happy," he said. "This team... is my second family. People are very nice and I am very happy to be here," he said.
The preliminary soccer matches started at 8 a.m. and will continue through Thursday at CIBC Fire Pitch, located at 3626 N Talman Ave. The final matches will be on Friday. All the games are free and open to the public.
The first International Special Olympics Summer games were held 50 years ago at Soldier Field. About 1,000 people with intellectual disabilities from 26 states and Canada competed in track and field, swimming and floor hockey.
The Special Olympics continued to grow and gain respect in the 1970s and 1980s. By 1993, the first International Games held outside the US were hosted in Austria.
Today, the Special Olympics movement has grown to more than 1 million coaches and volunteers, with more than 108,000 games and competitions throughout the year.
"To be coming back to Chicago, the birthplace of our movement, is a fantastic opportunity. The city has been fantastic in welcoming us. The big celebration of the Unified Cup is the sporting component of it," said Lou Lauria, Chief of Games and Competition, Special Olympics.
The opening ceremonies for the Special Olympics kicked off at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Visit www.specialolympics.org to check out the complete event schedule.
HERE'S A QUICK LOOK:
July 17 - 19: Special Olympics Unified Cup at CIBC Fire Pitch. Games begin at 8 a.m. Tuesday.
Tuesday, July 17: Opening Ceremonies of Unified Cup at CIBC Fire Pitch at 11:30 a.m., featuring parade of delegates, Special Olympics athletes from around the globe, speakers and cultural performances.
Friday, July 20: Law Enforcement Torch Run Kick off at 39th and Lake Shore Drive. Opening Ceremony 10 a.m. Run begins at 10:30 a.m.
Friday, July 20: Dedication of Eternal Flame at Soldier Field at 12 p.m.
Saturday, July 21: Global Day of Inclusion Family Fest at Soldier Field from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Saturday, July 21: Concert at Northerly Island featuring Chance the Rapper, Usher, Francis and the Lights, Jason Mraz, Daya, OAR and Smokey Robinson at 7 p.m.
FIND OUT MORE:
Unified Soccer Tournament
An inaugural soccer invitational tournament featuring 24 global Unified teams (16 male and eight female teams), each including players with and without intellectual disabilities playing alongside each other.
Preliminary matches will take place July 17-19 at the CIBC Fire Pitch (3626 North Talman Ave, Chicago) starting at 8 a.m. CT, with final matches taking place July 20 at TOYOTA Park (7000 Harlem Ave, Bridgeview, IL) starting at 4 p.m. CT with the celebrity match. Attendance is free, and more information can be found here.
Commemorative Law Enforcement Torch Run
A ceremonial Law Enforcement Torch Run will feature hundreds of law enforcement officers and Special Olympics athletes from around Chicago and the world. This four-mile run will take place along Chicago's lakefront and conclude with the lighting of the Eternal Flame of Hope outside of Soldier Field. The run will start at 11 a.m. CT at 39th Street along the lake shore path. More information can be found here.
Eternal Flame of Hope Lighting
A permanent, 30-foot monument honoring the birth of Special Olympics at Soldier Field in 1968 will be lit at a dedication ceremony. The monument will feature a landscaped plaza and donor recognition wall, as well as the spectacular sculpture and eternal flame, symbolizing the eternal hope Special Olympics provides to athletes and their families, and in turn, the eternal hope Special Olympics athletes provide the world. World-renowned artist, Richard Hunt, is the designer of the sculpture. Following the Law Enforcement Torch Run, the Eternal Flame of Hope Lighting will begin at approximately 12 p.m. CT at the Museum Campus between Soldier Field and the Field Museum. More information about the Eternal Flame of Hope and how to donate can be found here.
Global Day of Inclusion at Soldier Field
The Global Day of Inclusion is a massive celebration and family-friendly festival that will encourage all people to make their cities more inclusive. Day of Inclusion events include sports activities, games, exhibits, delicious food and live entertainment. The free event will begin at 1 p.m. CT at Soldier Field and is open to the public. More information can be found here.
50th Anniversary Celebration Concert
Capping off the 50th Anniversary festivities, Chance the Rapper will headline the 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert also featuring Usher, Smokey Robinson, Jason Mraz, O.A.R., Francis and the Lights, Daya and more. The 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert will be produced by Chance The Rapper's production company, Social Function Productions. Dedicated to empowerment and inclusion, the concert begins at 5:30 pm CT. More information and tickets can be found here.
Illuminating the Inclusion Revolution
Finally, in addition to the Chicago-based anniversary events, on July 20, more than 70 major landmarks, stadiums and iconic buildings around the world will turn red as part of Light Up for Inclusion, a global display of unity representing the dawn of the Inclusion Revolution.