Special Olympics Illinois Winter Games foster competition and community for individuals with disabilities


Photo Courtesy of Lauryn Oleson

The Special Olympics Illinois Winter Games feature alpine skiing and snowshoeing events along with festivities in downtown Galena for athletes with intellectual disabilities.

Chiara Kim, Reporter

At the Special Olympics Illinois Winter Games that will take place this week, 450 athletes will compete in alpine skiing or snowshoeing at Chestnut Mountain Resort in Galena, Ill. 

After a year off due to COVID-19, families and athletes look forward to returning to Galena for races and festivities. Special Olympics Illinois offers training and competitions in 18 sports for athletes with intellectual disabilities, focusing on enhancing physical fitness and social skills. 

Wheeling resident Ela Stoklosa has participated in the Winter Games 12 times. She enjoys getting to see her friends and using her athletic skills.

“I like to compete and train and stay active,” Ela Stoklosa said.

Theresa Stoklosa, Ela’s mother, volunteers and fundraises for the organization. She serves on the family committee at many events and helps out at other events with her daughter, such as the Ducky Derby, a rubber duck race raising money to benefit Special Olympics Illinois athletes.

“We love Special Olympics,” Theresa Stoklosa said. “Our whole family actually is pretty involved.”

Because of COVID-19, Theresa Stoklosa said there are fewer opportunities for families to volunteer. But she said she thinks she’ll help out with the opening ceremony, which includes a parade in downtown Galena, where the athletes light a cauldron holding a flame of hope. 

Leonard Woodson, Evanston’s Special Olympics program coordinator, holds training programs for those who are interested in participating. He began snowshoeing practices for athletes in September, training at Clark Street Beach.

Woodson looks forward to the athletes having a good time throughout the games, from team dinners in downtown Galena to competing in the cold temperatures.

“Galena really is welcoming to all the athletes,” Woodson said. “(They) have a lot of fun getting a chance to march in the parade of athletes through downtown Galena.”

Woodson trained four athletes who qualified for the Winter Games through a recent regional tournament.

Special Olympics Illinois Marketing and Communications Director Alexandra McMillin said the competition is the most exciting part, knowing this moment is special for the volunteers, staff and athletes. 

“It is just really amazing to see all of their hard work come to fruition and to see all of their competitive spirit,” McMillin said. 

The highlight of the games for Theresa Stoklosa is seeing the athletes’ faces when they win. 

After thinking her daughter’s would never walk or talk when she was older, she finds it amazing that Ela Stoklosa now participates in 13 sports, including golf, basketball and volleyball.

“Ela overall has 180 gold medals from Special Olympics,” Stoklosa said. “Seeing when she wins that gold medal and seeing them up on the podium, it just warms your heart.”

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Twitter: @chiarafkim

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