'It's competing the way sports should be': Suburban Special Olympians competing in USA Games
As a kid, Ryan Gronowski of Naperville had fun playing sports with his neighborhood friends and school classmates.
But as he grew, Gronowski no longer was welcome on the elementary school basketball team, which was turning competitive and couldn't accommodate special education students.
"Special Olympics has allowed Ryan to showcase his gifts and abilities as an athlete," said mom Deb Gronowski, who first learned about Special Olympics through a park district program for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. "It was at that time that Ryan really went from being an athlete with special needs to just being an athlete."
Today, Gronowski is a star athlete and was one of four Special Olympians chosen to be part of a national Disney commercial for the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games and lead a celebratory parade Friday afternoon at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida.
Gronowski is among roughly 25 suburban athletes and 105 Special Olympics Team Illinois members, Unified Partners, coaches and staff participating in this week's games beginning Sunday, June 5, through Sunday, June 12.
More than 5,500 athletes and coaches from 50 states and the Caribbean participate in the games -- played every four years. It includes 19 Olympic-style team and individual sports and more than 30 events. More than 125,000 family members, friends and spectators are expected to cheer them on throughout the week.
Gronowski has been part of Special Olympics for more than 15 years but it's his first time at the USA Games.
He's a linebacker and quarterback for Team Illinois' flag football team.
"I'm so excited," said the 24-year-old Neuqua Valley High School graduate. The best part of Special Olympics is "playing sports with my friends" and "winning medals," he added.
Gronowski has won more than 50 Special Olympics medals or "too many to count," as he puts it.
His younger brother, Mark, is a quarterback for South Dakota State University's Jackrabbits football team and a former standout at Neuqua Valley. His older sister, Sarah, played softball at Butler University in Indianapolis.
"Sports is the epicenter of our family," Deb Gronowski said. "With Special Olympics, it gives Ryan the opportunity that he normally wouldn't have to continue playing sports like his brother and sister. It truly has opened doors for Ryan ... it has created a community not only for him but also for us as parents. It truly does form a family where we are all in it together. We all understand one another, what we are going through and we are able to celebrate the highs and the lows together."
'They are phenomenal'
Coaching Special Olympics has been the most rewarding experience for Vernon Hills High School physical education teacher Andy Compton of Mount Prospect.
"They are phenomenal," said Compton of the athletes. "They are how people should be. They are truthful. They are honest. They are who they are. They give absolutely everything they have in practice and in the game. Over the years, I've gotten way more from them than they can ever get from me."
Compton has coached several sports over the years and took over Libertyville-Vernon Hills Area High School District 128's Special Olympics program in 2000-2001. He now is the district's Special Olympics athletic director and head coach.
The program started with just snow shoeing and track with a handful of athletes. It has since grown to nine sports in the fall, winter and spring combined with roughly 20 to 30 athletes participating.
"A couple of years into it, I quit doing other sports," said Compton, who along with coach Vince DeLuca is training nine district athletes on the Unified Soccer team at the games. "This is my 22nd year (coaching Special Olympics)."
Compton said he has raised four boys of his own who are competitive in sports and the biggest lesson he could impart was "you've got to give it everything" -- just as Special Olympics athletes do.
"It's competing the way sports should be," he said.
'It's super fun'
Brothers Luke and William "Liam" Angelos, of Mundelein, are partners to special needs athletes on District 128's Unified Soccer team.
The brothers said they are lucky to be on the team and that the experience has been educational and rewarding.
"It's super fun," said Luke Angelos, 15, an incoming sophomore at Vernon Hills High School. "I got to learn a bunch from the kids and they taught me always to stay positive and how to be a leader."
Angelos also plays basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring.
"I feel like in other sports it is more like about yourself and you have to like help yourself," he said. "People aren't always there for you. In Special Olympics, people are always helping each other out and pushing each other to be their best selves."
Liam Angelos, 16, a junior at Vernon Hills High School, sees the games as an opportunity to strengthen bonds among teammates.
"It's really all about the athletes," he said. "We're trying to make sure everyone is having fun, they all feel inclusive and that they really have this team feeling. It is going to be really fun to meet other teams and build this relationship within the Special Olympics community."
Meeting new people and fellow athletes is a big part of the excitement, said Rebecca Davis of Gurnee.
The 25-year-old Warren Township High School graduate has been participating in Special Olympics for about 12 years. She will be running track at nationals for Team Illinois for the first time.
"I'm very nervous, but I'm very excited to be going," said Davis, who takes comfort that her parents, twin brother, Shaun, and younger sister, Leah, will be there to cheer her on.
Mom Cheryl Davis, who used to volunteer with Special Olympics as a college student, said she never imagined it would become such an important part of her life.
"I think it's great," she said of the program. "It is important that (special needs athletes) have the ability to continue to compete but with people who are more at their skill level."
For Rebecca, who loves basketball, soccer and track, "it would be hard not to be able to play those sports," she added.
Suburban Special Olympians on Team IllinoisAthletics
Rebecca Davis of Gurnee
Sabrina Veverka of Gilberts
Ryan Gronowski of Naperville
Louis Pisani of Naperville
Peter Silagi of Naperville
Todd Mallo of Orland Park
Daniel Baker of Hinsdale
Chris Kenter of Palatine
Mareena Mattison of Prospect Heights
Kyle Tuckey of Palatine
Ben Brizzolara of Sugar Grove
Alexandrea Fix of Gurnee
Mari Landwehr of Geneva
Charles Nilles of Willowbrook
Connor Nolan of Woodridge
Catherine Reed of Mundelein
Luke Angelos of Mundelein
Liam Angelos of Mundelein David DuBois of Libertyville
Noah Hewitt of Mundelein
Joseph Maller of Mundelein
Chase Miller of Libertyville
Chris Morozin of Libertyville
Benjamin Nuttall of Libertyville
Hailey Spytek of Vernon Hills
To learn more about #TeamSOILL, visit soill.org.