We weren't quite sure what we'd find in May 2011 when we set out to showcase extraordinary young people for our new Suburban Standouts column.
The suburbs, it turns out, are teeming with gifted minds, accomplished athletes, talented artists and driven students who thrive, often in the face of hardship. They continue to share their stories with us, providing a weekly break from the seemingly incessant negativity we face.
We checked in with six of our favorites to see what they've been up to.
Here's Bill Cook in a nutshell: Bored one day on vacation in Florida, he called up the Boys and Girls Club of Broward County offering to put on a free magic show. A few days later, his sleight-of-hand tricks had an audience of 300-plus kids dropping their jaws in disbelief.
It's that kind of seek-out-and-seize-every-opportunity-in-sight philosophy that led to a very busy -- and peculiar -- 2012 for the Prospect Heights magician.
It started off with a three-week stint in Rome guest-emceeing an Italian reality TV competition for magicians. The producers contacted him after watching a series of YouTube videos he posted showcasing some of the artistry in his repertoire.
"Let's just say the language barrier was a bit of a challenge," Bill said. "But I learned a ton."
In the spring, he gave his dad, William Koch, quite the retirement send-off during his final concert as Niles West High School's longtime director of bands. In front of a packed gym with music from "Phantom of the Opera" playing (remember how the phantom disappears?), Bill covered his father with a cloth, made him "vanish" and then reappear on the balcony.
Again, jaws dropped.
In addition to countless birthday parties and trade, radio and restaurant shows, Bill performed at the IMX Magic convention in Las Vegas and put on a one-man, 90-minute show in Villa Park for a standing-room-only crowd. He also won a nonmagic talent competition for singing and playing the piano at the Houdini Magic Convention in Wisconsin.
And though his profile is rising, his waistline is shrinking. He hits the gym every day and has dropped 50 pounds in 12 months.
Up next is a much-needed vacation, a cruise that will double as a scouting trip.
"I love cruising and think it would be great to work on a ship," Bill said. "It could be too much of a good thing, but I'd like to give it a shot."
It doesn't get any better for a young hockey player than representing the United States at the World Junior Hockey Championships.
Eighteen-year-old Ryan Hartman of West Dundee is doing exactly that -- for the second year in a row.
Ryan, a center, is playing with the under-20 USA national hockey team at the International Ice Hockey Federal World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia. Ryan -- the second-youngest player on the team -- scored a goal Wednesday to help Team USA top the Czech Republic 7-0, setting up a semifinal match today against a Canadian squad that includes several players who'd be in the NHL today if not for the league's lockout.
Last year, he won a gold medal with USA's under-18 hockey team.
"It's been awesome so far. I met a lot of top end guys in the tournament," Ryan said. "I don't really feel the pressure too much, I just like to have fun with it. I don't think too much about it. I just play how I play."
But that's not all -- this summer, the young man known for his grit and determination was recruited to play for the Ontario Hockey League's Plymouth Whalers. Before that, he spent two seasons with USA Hockey's national team development program based in Ann Arbor, Mich., which features many of the top young players in the country on under-17 and under-18 teams.
Ryan originally planned to play hockey for Miami University in Ohio, but with one more year of high school left, he decided to go with the Whalers. His ultimate goal is to play in the National Hockey League, and he's projected as an early pick in June's NHL draft.
"The Canadian league was a bit of adjustment. It's a lot of road trips. But it's good," Ryan said. "I'm just trying to be able to produce on the ice and be a consistent player. I want to help our team get to the playoffs, make a good run in playoffs."
And after that? "Do whatever I need to do to help myself get drafted."
After dominating the last competition season, Tomoki Hiwatashi's coaches wondered how the Hoffman Estates figure skater would fare at the next level.
The early answer -- though many of his competitors have both years and inches on the 12-year-old -- is extremely well.
Now skating in the novice category, two notches below the Olympics, Tomoki is headed to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships this month in Omaha.
He qualified this past fall by winning the Upper Great Lakes Regional Championship in Green Bay and moving onto the Midwestern sectional in Cleveland, where he also finished first.
"These are fully grown men towering over him who are physically stronger and have that much more experience," said Cydele Fadeeva, one of Tomoki's coaches. "But it all comes down to having the full package and then delivering it when it matters."
Tomoki, who belongs to the DuPage Figure Skating Club and trains at the Centennial Ice Rink in Wilmette, finished second at one East Coast competition.
Silver did not sit well with him, and he's been hungry ever since.
Tomoki will use the next couple of weeks to polish new elements and run his program again and again in preparation for nationals, which start Jan. 20.
If he nails it, the Carl Sandburg Junior High seventh-grader just might stand atop the podium with skaters capable of growing facial hair.
"He says that he likes to make people smile, that skating is his gift to them," Fadeeva said. "It's such a pure thought that I think he relaxes a bit and truly enjoys performing."
The Mann brothers
2012 is a year that the Mann brothers -- young rockers from Glen Ellyn who are making waves in music circles -- will never forget.
That's because they got to meet idols Gene Simmons and Bruce Kulick of the band KISS in October at the Rock 'N Roll Fantasy Camp held in Las Vegas.
"It was an indescribable feeling to have dreams come true. I was nervous and I was trying to take it all in. I was in awe," said Clayton Mann, the 13-year-old frontman of the band Rebelmann. His bandmates are his 15-year-old twin brothers, drummer Bryce and guitarist Johnathon.
"Gene -- he was so out there and honest with you. He would act like he'd known you forever," Clayton said. "Bruce was funny. He taught us about showmanship. We met so many people, everyone was really nice."
Rebelmann impressed everyone, said Rock 'N Roll Fantasy Camp founder David Fishof, who invited the brothers to attend the camp where famous musicians mentor aspiring ones. As part of the experience, the brothers played at the Rouge Bar at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino.
"They were amazing," Fishof said. "Musically they were great. I just love their stage presence. The lead singer, he follows (the style of) Gene Simmons and did such a great impression of him. I think that Gene was blown away when he saw the talent they had."
Another highlight of the year was playing nine shows in September at the Independent Music Festival in Nashville, the brothers said.
The brothers will attend the Chicago Music Awards later this month, where they are in the running for the most talented teen and rising star awards. Last year, they won for most talented.
Now, they're writing a lot of music and hope to record their debut album sometime in 2013.
Standing in her floor-length ballgown, Gallia Kastner looked around the Washington, D.C., concert venue and felt shock.
The Arlington Heights 15-year-old had just learned she won first prize for violin at one of the world's most prestigious youth competitions, the sixth triennial Johansen International Competition for Young String Players.
Held every three years, the event featured a field of 33 finalists from around the world, whittled from 149 submissions.
"At first I thought, 'There's something wrong here,'" Gallia said. "I'm just one of so many talented people."
Along with a $10,000 prize, Gallia's showing led to a featured soloist performance with the Gettysburg Chamber Orchestra in Pennsylvania and a recital back in D.C. with the same Johansen contest's viola and cello winners.
The Hersey High School sophomore also came away the first-prize winner of the Skokie Valley Symphony Orchestra's Young Artist Competition, and in October she performed the Brahms Violin Concerto with the symphony.
Currently between competition seasons, Gallia is immersed in both learning new pieces and school, where she takes honors classes. She also expects a growing number of stamps to fill her passport, as competing with others at her caliber requires playing more international contests.
"I think every performance this year has had something special about it, and I was pleased with each of mine in some way," Gallia said.
The last 12 months didn't quite go the way Justin Miller had hoped.
Justin, 20, a drummer from Streamwood and student at Elgin Community College, was diagnosed with epithelioid sarcoma three years ago and had his dominant arm amputated in May 2011. Justin taught himself to compensate and keep playing drums with just one arm.
Justin suffered medical setbacks this year but resolutely keeps looking forward with the strength that has impressed countless doctors, friends, and relatives.
He expected to have some nodules in his lungs removed in January 2012, but his surgeon ultimately decided against it. He had also hoped to get a prosthetic arm, but he's still being treated for cancer in his shoulder, so that's not possible, either.
Over the summer, he started taking a newly FDA-approved oral chemotherapy drug that upsets his stomach. As a result, he carries just under 100 pounds on his almost 5'9" frame. The drug also turned his hair platinum blond, he said.
In October, he spent two weeks in the hospital from a collapsed lung and ensuing complications. He is also on medication for back pain.
Still, "I'm pretty optimistic despite everything that is going on," Justin said.
He was especially proud of completing last semester's math class at ECC, where he is studying anthropology. "I was trying so hard to finish," he said. "I felt accomplished. I was just so tired after the final. I was just happy it was done."
This semester, he plans to take two online classes but hopes to get back to campus in summer or fall.
He still helps the Streamwood High School marching band by attending concerts and being a sort of motivator-at-large, and he continues to play in the rock band at Our Redeemer's United Methodist Church in Schaumburg.
His main goal for 2013 is to attend the annual Dick Vitale Gala, which will be held in May in Sarasota, Fla. The gala benefits cancer research.
Justin said he really wants to encourage people to help the cause, too, via websites like curesearch.org.
"Just get the word out that people need help, and that research really is in desperate need of some money," he said.
• Elena Ferrarin and Kimberly Pohl always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to firstname.lastname@example.org or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.