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updated: 6/12/2014 11:16 AM

Special Olympics role leads to teaching passion for Hoffman Estates teen

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  • Carina Valencia, 19, will represent Team Illinois in the upcoming Special Olympics 2014 USA Games in New Jersey as a member of the unified soccer squad. Because of her work with Special Olympics, Valencia said she has decided to become a special-education teacher.

       Carina Valencia, 19, will represent Team Illinois in the upcoming Special Olympics 2014 USA Games in New Jersey as a member of the unified soccer squad. Because of her work with Special Olympics, Valencia said she has decided to become a special-education teacher.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 

Carina Valencia remembers the moment.

The 19-year-old was trying to teach a special-needs student a certain way to kick a soccer ball really, really far one afternoon outside Hoffman Estates High School.

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At first, he struggled. But Valencia stayed patient. She didn't rush him.

And then she saw when her classmate got it, when the coach and athlete clicked.

It was a teaching moment not just for her friend, but one for Valencia, too. It's when she knew she made an impact -- and when she wanted to become a special-education teacher.

"I just realized I want to do this for them," said Valencia, who will study at Harper College this fall.

The teen is one of four Hoffman Estates soccer standouts preparing for a national stage. Valencia will play as a unified partner for Team Illinois at the Special Olympics 2014 USA Games in New Jersey. The team features a "unified" roster made up of athletes with and without disabilities. Partners are those without intellectual disabilities.

"She just brings a fun energy to the team," said Amy Longmore, a Hoffman Estates assistant coach. "She just has a real heart. She treats all the kids as her friend."

While most of the spotlight focuses on the special-needs athletes who push past physical boundaries, Valencia works to build communication between players. Some of that means building relationships off the field.

At Hoffman Estates, Valencia cheers on special-needs students at pickup basketball games. She joins them in postgame celebrations at Dairy Queen. And she offers dating advice for her playing partner, Matthew Sommerer.

He teaches her that winning isn't everything -- "It's all about having fun at the end of the day," Valencia said.

And she teaches him, once a shy teen, about confidence.

"If he never gets out of his comfort zone, he never really knows what's out there for him," she said.

Ahead of the games, Valencia is putting in extra hours in the gym, lifting weights and running. And she tries to keep some of the pressure of a national competition off the other athletes.

"I know this is a memory and a moment I'll always treasure and carry with me into the future," she said.

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