Organizers, Athletes Reflect On 50 Years Of Chicago’s Special Olympics | WBEZ
Skip to main content


50 Years Later, Organizers, Athletes Reflect On Chicago’s Special Place In Special Olympics

Chicago’s Spring Special Olympics Games were this week at Dunbar Park on the city’s near South Side. The Chicago Park District says more than 3,800 athletes signed up to compete in this week’s events. Some of the gold medal winners will advance to the summer games in June.

This is a significant year for the Special Olympics, which started in Chicago 50 years ago.

The games were the brainchild of current Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke. In 1968, Burke worked at the Chicago Park District when she had the idea for a citywide track meet for kids. Burke says she asked Eunice Kennedy Shriver, an advocate for people with intellectual disabilities, for financial support for the event, and Shriver agreed under one condition, according to Burke: Everyone had to be included.  

The track meet took place at Soldier Field with “100 athletes from 26 states and Canada,” Burke says. A half century later, Burke says she’s “still in awe” of the thousands of athletes, coaches, and volunteers who participate every year.

“50 years ago, people with disabilities were in the closet or in institution,” Burke says, adding that even though there’s more acceptance and inclusion now, the athletes still need more access to jobs, housing, and education.

Below are some of the participants in this year’s Chicago Spring Games, which started Monday at Dunbar Park.  

Arabella Breck/WBEZ

Lori Michalski is head coach at Shabbona Park on Chicago’s Northwest Side. She says she’s been the park’s Special Olympics head coach for 17 years, and she coaches about 70 athletes.

Michalski says in high school she had a close friend whose sister had Down syndrome, and that’s how she first learned about the Special Olympics. She says the friend worried how her sister would be accepted. Later, that same friend told Michalski she would be great working with people with special needs. She applied for the job and got it.

Carrie Shepherd/WBEZ

Molly Milligan is one of Michalski’s athletes at Shabbona Park. Milligan proudly displays her gold medal for the shot put event, and her bronze for the 100 meter.

Arabella Breck/WBEZ

Elizabeth Clark Duchon is 34 years old and says she started participating in the Special Olympics when she was 15. Her husband is also an athlete at Shabbona Park. Lizzie, as her mother-in-law calls her, says it’s not all about the competition. She says her favorite part is “meeting people,” and she “always cheers on the next person.”

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.