Original Special Olympics athlete continues to compete

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"I was in (Soldier Field) running," Amelia Hernandez remembers of the 1968 summer day when she ran a 50-yard dash at the inaugural Special Olympics. (WLS)

Walking through the Piotrowski Park gym in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, one finds the usual bleachers, a volleyball net and basketball hoop latched onto the wall. But there's something more here: an enlarged black and white photograph of a young girl running. It's unmarked, but Amelia Hernandez recognizes the image as herself at 11 years old.

"I was in (Soldier Field) running," she remembers of the 1968 summer day when she ran a 50-yard dash at the inaugural Special Olympics.

She won a gold medal in that event and decades later, "I kept going and then I started doing more things," she said.

She still competes in the local Chicago games each year and has been to the national games as well. Her repertoire ranges from tennis to bocce ball.

I caught up Hernandez and other Special Olympics Chicago athletes at Piotrowski Park during summer camp. It's track and field day and they were practicing the softball toss and 50-yard dash.

"She's 100 percent competitive whether it's practice or the competition going for the gold," said coach David Donohue, who helps the athletes practice a variety of skills and prepare for upcoming competitions. He's known Amelia Hernandez nearly 30 years.

"She's a goalie and they call her spider because of the all the arms they think she has," added her mom Connie Hernandez.

Amelia Hernandez has been so successful across the games, her mom can't give a definitive medal count.

"I think they range in the thousands," said Connie Hernandez, who was also at Soldier Field to witness this international movement's start.

"It really was something to see at that time," she said while gazing up at her daughter's larger-than-life photo, adding, "I think I saw the beginning of a life. That opened the doors to special education in public schools...The atmosphere in society changed after that... It kind of brings tears to your eyes to see that it's come this far."

Patricia Hernandez is another mom seeing a tremendous impact for her son, Jose.

"He's actually learned to get along with others... He's learned how to play in a team and be a team member and he's made a lot of friends," she said, adding "It's also helped my family as a whole...being more accepting and understanding that people with challenges are people too and they can do anything that everybody else can."

"They're so honest in giving their all when it comes to competing. And that's the beauty of Special Olympics," Donahue added.
Related Topics:
sportsspecial olympicsspecial needs childrenathletesChicagoLittle Village
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