The state championships for girls gymnastics opens Friday at Palatine High School, and while Prospect High School gymnast Jill Sevilla won't be competing, she already is a winner in her own way.
Jill, who has Down syndrome, competed on Prospect's junior varsity team this season, while also balancing an academic load which includes Spanish and biology.
"The girls that are less experienced pick an event to focus on, and Jill picked floor routine," says her coach, Sara Koshelev. "We worked with her to improve her jumps and some tumbling passes."
Two months into the season, Jill competed in a tri-meet with Conant and Schaumburg high schools.
"Everyone on the team went crazy," Koshelev says. "They all were so excited to see her out there."
Jill's biggest adjustment, her mother Linda Sevilla says, was managing the team's three-hour practices six times a week, but she did it.
"It was such a positive experience for her," said Linda Sevilla, pointing to the daily workouts as well as the social aspect of the team.
Jill's inclusion on the gymnastics team this season comes at the same time -- before, actually -- a new mandate from the U.S. Department of Education. The ruling obligates schools to provide equal opportunity for students with disabilities to participate in extracurricular sports activities.
Officials in the special education field are comparing the ruling to Title IX and its landmark decision in 1972 to ban discrimination based on sex in academics or athletics.
In a statement issued Jan. 25, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said providing equal access to students with disabilities will ensure them the same health and social benefits of athletic participation as their peers.
"Sports can provide invaluable lessons in discipline," Duncan said, "in selflessness, passion and courage, and this guidance will help schools ensure that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to benefit from the life lessons they can learn on the playing field or on the court."
Prospect Associate Principal Greg Minter says Jill is not the first student with a disability to compete on one of the school's sports teams. Others have competed on the swim team, as well.
"We take pride in being as inclusive as possible in all aspects of our programs, whether they be academic or co-curricular activities," Minter said. "We're just proud that Jill found a place that fits."
Jill's mother now serves on a committee with Northwest Suburban High School District 214 that is looking for more ways to include students with special needs into extracurricular activities.
Jill began as a cheerleader, with many years on the sidelines of the Mount Prospect Football Association.
Her Mount Prospect Cheerleading Club even advanced to the Illinois Recreational Cheerleading Association's state championships, held at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, where they finished fifth.
"She never ceases to amaze us," Linda Sevilla says. "We're just so proud of her."