Constable: Special Olympics skaters upset over loss of sports
For the past 40 years, young Illinois athletes with developmental disabilities have been able to compete against each other for Special Olympics medals in figure skating, speed skating and cross-country skiing. That all melts away after this month's competition, when Special Olympics Illinois pulls the plug on those sports, citing dwindling participation.
"It makes me sad," longtime figure skater Abby Stanton, 17, of Lake in the Hills, says when her parents, Chris and Mindy Stanton, tell their daughter with Down syndrome the news.
For athletes and parents who have been trying to keep those sports viable, the news is heartbreaking.
"People are going to be disappointed, and we totally get that," says Marty Hickman, the chief operating officer of Special Olympics Illinois, who recently sent a letter explaining the decision to participants in those programs. A few dozen athletes across the state participate in the sports that will be abolished. Last year, 930 athletes played the "emerging sport" of flag football, which debuted in 2015 with a tournament at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire.
"We're a competitive-sports organization," says Hickman, who says there no longer is "meaningful competition" in the three dropped sports. "That doesn't mean they don't have value."
That value is difficult to measure in numbers.
"When they got the letter about it not happening, they all came to me and were pretty upset about it," skating coach Zane Shropshire says of Abby and the other athletes with disabilities she trains at the Crystal Ice House in Crystal Lake. "For a lot of them, this is their only sport. They spend all year practicing."
Skater Kayla Barnard, 26, of Algonquin, has been a "global messenger," speaking before groups about the value of her sport, and now it's gone. Illinois skaters qualified for international competitions last year and in 2013, and now Shropshire, who lives in Algonquin, says she isn't sure how local athletes can do that without a sanctioned state event. Shropshire coaches a Theatre On Ice team for skaters with disabilities. U.S. Figure Skating offers a program for skaters with disabilities. But competition is just a part of the issue.
Shropshire remembers when Abby wouldn't skate by herself. The coach's daughter, Rachel, had to hold Abby's hand. Now Abby performs solo routines with a big smile, and Rachel, 24, works with Special Opportunities Available in Recreation (SOAR) in Normal and is building a skating program for people with developmental disabilities. Years ago, Shropshire's son, Kyle, performed a skating routine from "Toy Story" with a shy young skater with special needs. Now Kyle, 22, skates as "Woody" in the Disney On Ice show at the United Center and recently hosted a group of suburban skaters with developmental disabilities.
Part of the issue with the skating competition is that it requires more effort than most sports. Beginners can do most track events quickly, while skaters need practice. Finding an open field where kids can play soccer is easier and cheaper than scheduling time on an ice rink with a sound system that can accommodate two days of competition.
Mindy Stanton says she thinks the skating sports could have grown with more support and outreach.
"I feel like they could have given it a couple of years," she says.
Barring an unexpected reversal, the final cross-country ski competition runs today through Thursday at Chestnut Mountain in Galena, where most of the 400 athletes will compete in more popular sports, such as Alpine skiing and snowshoeing. The final Skating Championships will be Feb. 18-19 at Seven Bridges Ice Arena in Woodridge. Supporters are hoping it generates enough interest to recruit a whole new generation of skaters.
"We'd like nothing better than to see more athletes," Hickman says. "If that changes, that would be wonderful."