Suburban Special Olympics athletes compete in Winter Games
Dozens of Northwest suburban athletes will converge on Galena this week for the Special Olympics Illinois 2015 Winter Games.
A few events of the competition was scheduled to begin Tuesday, with 355 participants competing in alpine skiing, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing through Thursday at Chestnut Mountain Resort.
A parade of athletes was to walk through historic downtown Galena before opening ceremonies from 5:30 to 6 p.m. Tuesday. Local restaurants will then host the athletes, coaches, family members and volunteers for dinner.
For Ben Brizzolara, 37, of St. Charles, the parade is among the highlights of the games.
"I like competing and being with my friends," said Brizzolara, who has been participating in the Winter Games for 20 years and intends to keep competing as long as he is able. He will be running the 200-meter snowshoeing race.
"It's a major part of both of our lives," said Penny Brizzolara, who will be accompanying her son to the games. "Special Olympics has done a great deal for us and afforded Ben a lot of activities."
Brizzolara is among three athletes representing the Fox Valley Special Recreation Association in snowshoeing.
"They are all really supportive of each other," coach Becky Fredrickson said. "They worked really hard to earn this. They all compete in a lot of different sports throughout the year."
Winter Games is one of 180 Special Olympics competitions held each year throughout the state.
To compete at the Winter Games, athletes must train for at least eight weeks and qualify through one of 18 area competitions statewide.
Ela Stoklosa, 24, of Wheeling, who has been competing in Special Olympics for 11 years in eight sports, has earned 117 medals -- roughly 74 gold, 20 silver and the remainder bronze. In the 2010 National Games, Stoklosa played on the Illinois women's basketball team that placed fourth, said her mother, Theresa Stoklosa.
At the Winter Games, the Hersey High School graduate will compete in the 50- and 100-meter races in cross-country skiing. "I love to compete," she said. "I practice a lot and train."
Naperville North High School junior Louis Pisani, 17, is participating in alpine skiing. He has been a Special Olympics athlete since he was 8 years old and competes in basketball, bowling and track at Naperville Community Unit District 203.
"He is very excited. He gets very competitive once he gets there," said mother Kish Pisani, coach and coordinator of DuPage Valley Special Athletes, a nonprofit run by parent volunteers.
The group has four athletes at the games this year.
Schaumburg Township Elementary School District 54 has a robust Special Olympics program with roughly 160 active athletes.
"We have 14 that we qualified to go to Galena for the Winter Games," said David Luzwick, Special Olympics coordinator. "Everybody is going for alpine skiing. Our district has found so much value in the program that they have two (staff) positions here specifically for Special Olympics. Other districts, they have physical education teachers double as the Special Olympics coordinator."
Matthew Williams of Schaumburg and Deming Fanslau of Roselle are among District 54's contingent of athletes competing this week.
Besides alpine skiing, Williams, 13, competes in seven Special Olympics sports throughout the year: basketball, soccer, swimming, track, golf, gymnastics and bocce ball.
"This is my second time going to Winter Games," said the seventh-grader. "My favorite of the competition is what Special Olympics is all about and opening ceremonies when they light the torch, which is really cool."
Williams said Special Olympics offers many outlets for people with intellectual and physical disabilities, giving them a chance to compete and a social environment in which they can thrive.
"I'm excited that I got this far," Williams said.
Williams and Fanslau are best buddies and ambassadors for the program. They give speeches at various sponsor events and schools statewide.
Fanslau, 13, also plays multiple sports, including basketball, bocce ball, skiing, golf, bowling, track and swimming.
"This is my third year doing Winter Games," he said. "I remember the first time I started skiing I threw a temper tantrum at coach Dave."
Fanslau kept practicing and has improved greatly.
"What I like about skiing is that you get the opportunity to do good on one hill, and you can go to the next," he said. "The higher hills are the best. I want big hills."
From young to old, Special Olympics appeals to all ages.
Ruth Moyer, 52, a resident at Lambs Farm in Green Oaks, will be competing in the 100-meter snowshoeing race. She has been snowshoeing longer than she can remember.
"I like snowshoeing because it is fun, is good exercise and allows me to meet new friends," she said.
Moyer is among eight athletes from Lambs Farm competing in snowshoeing. They have been doing endurance training and speed exercises in the gym at Lambs Farm, and practicing for the 100-meter race outside and around the track, with or without snow in snowshoes.
Moyer has gone to the state games for swimming and track, and also is on the softball and basketball teams. She has won many medals, from bronze to gold, in those sports.
At the end of the games, athletes get to celebrate their accomplishments with a victory dance. The games will wrap up by 3 p.m. Thursday.
For a complete list of athletes, visit soill.org.
• Daily Herald staff writer Mick Zawislak contributed to this story.