This time of year, young kids, teens and their parents often get beaten down by the pressure-packed, occasionally cruel world of organized spring sports. Even those youngsters fortunate enough to survive the tryouts and make a team can still gripe about coaches, teammates, positions, playing time, umpires, lousy luck and the injustices of life.
"All those little nitpicking things that high schools have, that's not here," says Pat Keating, a coach for the Elgin Area School District U-46 BlueStars track and field team, as he helps put 50 young athletes with developmental disabilities through a practice to prepare for the Special Olympics regionals April 21 at North Central College in Naperville. "We're just happy to see everybody."
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Keating, an early childhood teacher in the district, has no complaints about a year he spent as a high school varsity tennis coach, "but this is so much more rewarding," he says, as a pair of his sprinters race around orange cones on this gym floor in Elgin. "Our goal here is all positivity."
A handful of parents sit on the faded numbers that mark seats on the wooden bleachers in the balcony overlooking this practice in the gymnasium of Gifford Street High School, an alternative school that abuts the U-46 Educational Services Center. The hum from the florescent lights hanging from the ceiling makes it difficult to hear the parents' conversations, but their smiles tell a story.
"You don't have the parent issues," says Tonia Ficarella, a Bartlett mom who cheers for other kids just as enthusiastically as she roots for her 13-year-old son, Nico. "The feeling for the parents is to see their kids competing. It's a lot of fun. Sometimes I think it's for the parents more than the kids."
Nico's brother, Joey, 16, who runs track at South Elgin High School, tells the story of how Nico brought home a gold medal in the softball throw at the regionals four years ago and finished second in the state. Nico doesn't exhibit that same competitive fire when it comes to his sprint events, but his father, Umberto Ficarella, encourages him as he heads into the home stretch. It's all about the effort.
"Sometimes you'll hear more cheers for the last person across the finish line," adds the dad, a longtime dentist in Bartlett. As leaders of the Thomas Merton Council of the Knights of Columbus, the fraternal charity connected to the Resurrection Catholic Church in Wayne, Ficarella and Grand Knight Chris Rubino of Bartlett present a $1,000 check to the BlueStars during the practice.
That money will buy new uniforms and help with travel expenses, says a grateful Maureen Lue, the school nurse in charge of the Special Olympics program throughout all of the U-46 coverage area, which serves more than 40,000 children in schools spanning a region that includes Elgin, Bartlett, South Elgin, Wayne, Hoffman Estates, Streamwood, Carol Stream and Hanover Park.
After a team cheer, many of the athletes come up to personally thank Ficarella and Rubino for the Knights of Columbus' donation. While fun is the goal, Lue says many Special Olympics athletes care about winning and doing, and looking, their best. Some of the kids have emotional disabilities that make competition extra stressful. Coaches such as Keating, Nick Arvanitakis, Dawn Puglise-Suske and physical therapists Sarah Domin and Lindsey Reynolds keep the young athletes active, engaged in the activities and smiling during this practice, Lue notes.
Braden Graves, an 11-year-old sixth-grader at Timber Trails in Hoffman Estates, runs alongside his older sister, Kylie. She and fellow high school volunteers Ashley Suske and Cara Johnson help meet the demands of the athletes.
"Some you will see running with a smile. Some of them still want to know their times," Lue says.
The BlueStars program boasts two basketball teams, with one a little more competitive than the other, a bowling team and this track and field squad.
Most parents want their children to do their best.
"One mom was upset because her daughter stopped in the middle of the race to wave to her mom," Lue says with a chuckle. But Lue notes that the girl still managed to take home a gold medal in her age bracket.
"I run fast and get points. I got a medal last year," says Bartlett sprinter Allie Ravn-Hansen, who will celebrate her birthday Sunday. "I'll be 21 soon. We're going out for pizza."
The top athletes at the regionals will get the chance to compete in the statewide competition June 14-16 at Illinois State University in Normal.
"It is amazing, just amazing," Leu says of the Special Olympics. "Going down to state is just so fun. The kids have a blast."
And that, of course, is what should be special about all youth sports.