Paralympic-style track meet expands to open to all ages

It was just going to be a small part of a suburban festival.

Five years later, a Paralympic-style track meet created by a 9-year-old boy is its own separate event that's 10 times the size but has the same message: “we're just like everybody else.”

Ben Spengel, now 14, of McHenry was born with cerebral palsy and came up with the idea for a meet for people with physical and visual disabilities when he became frustrated with watching from the sidelines as his able-bodied brother competed. He had been looking for a way to “give people with disabilities the opportunity to compete in an organized way,” he said.

That first year, it was a part of McHenry's Fiesta Days celebration, and many local athletic organizations reached out to help, such as the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association and Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association.

Last year, Ben and his sponsors separated from Fiesta Days to create a meet that would also be a National Junior Disabilities Championship qualifier, though it still continues to offer novice and recreational events.

“Competition is good for confidence building with these athletes,” said Dave Dauphin, NISRA program manager. “In school or sports programs, they're kind of the ones that are different from everyone else, but when they come to these track meets, they're all alike.”

The Run and Roll Track Meet will return from 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 6, to McCracken Field, 3712 W. Kane Ave., McHenry. Attendance rates this year are at an all-time high of 20 registered competitors, and Trish Spengel, Ben's mother, said most competitors register on the day of the meet. Registration is free.

Competitors this year come from Cook, Lake, McHenry, Kane and DuPage counties.

Qualifying events include races from 60 meters to 1,500 meters, discus and shot put, and recreational events include shorter races, 100-meter relay, 60-meter wheelchair weave, long jump, discus and softball throw.

For the first time, the meet will be open to participants of all ages and feature a meet-and-greet with two U.S. Paralympics medalists.

Patrick Byrne, 2002 sled hockey gold medal winner, and Sheila O'Neil, 1996 track and field bronze medal winner, will demonstrate how to use adaptive sports equipment, including golf carts, hockey sleds and track equipment.

Trish Spengel said in addition to the event being athletic, it's educational for families.

“It's taken me years to find all this information,” she said. “Now we have it all together in one night, so you can see all that's offered in the area.”

McHenry Mayor Sue Low originally helped Ben Spengel with coordinating the event. Low has a 37-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy and was a teacher in special education for 33 years.

“It's important for everyone to ... recognize that the playing field isn't the same for all of us,” she said. “I think that Ben's event has heightened that awareness in our community, (and) he's definitely brought something to McHenry that we can feel extremely proud of.”

Ben Spengel playing sled hockey. Courtesy of Trish Spengel
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