Local athletes who competed in the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games got lots of cheers, a boost in confidence and several medals.
Allison Leehaug, Rikki Kirsch, Jason Akbar and Johnny Riley joined Team Illinois and tested their skills against thousands of other athletes in New Jersey last week.
Leehaug and Kirsch won several medals and ribbons in the competitions they were in. Akbar of Joliet and Riley of Lockport on gold in the volleyball competition.
In most of the competitions they were in, Kirsch of Shorewood and Leehaug of Frankfort came out on top with gold medals. But the experience of being in the games themselves proved transformative.
It’s seeing the changes in Kirsch before and after the games that will resonate the most with her family, said her mother, Chris Kirsch. She saw her daughter, who competed in various swimming competitions, become more mature and confident.
“She hasn’t quit smiling,” Chris Kirsch said.
Kirsch won gold for the 50-yard freestyle swim and 4x25 yard Medley relay. She also won fifth place in the 25-yard backstroke and a participation ribbon in the 25-yard butterfly.
Allison Leehaug, who competed in the pentathlon and several other contests, said she is changed person as a result of being in the games as well. She recalled everyone being upbeat and cheerful, whether it was her or the other athletes on the stage.
“The friends I made and the people I met and all the excitement, I will have these friends for the rest of my life,” she said.
Leehaug managed to win gold for the 4x100 meter relay and bronze for the pentathlon.
Leehaug said she was nervous when she competed. Although some of the bigger competitions were harder, she tried her hardest to win. But she also tried to remember to have a good time and enjoy her time being with the other athletes.
Rikki Kirsch said her experience at the games was fun.
“She’s competitive to a certain degree, but she’s always proud of her accomplishments,” Chris Kirsch said.
The Special Olympics is meant to showcase the athletic talents of people with disabilities. Leehaug’s father, Ross Leehaug said everyone should try to attend the games as it is an amazing experience. Her mother Julie Leehaug said everyone at the games supported the athletes who competed.
“It doesn’t matter if it is your athlete or not, everyone cheers you on,” she said.