Beneath sunny skies at Mount Greenwood Park, Special Olympics athletes Karyn Mrotek and Matthew Buck shared the limelight at an impressive send-off for their upcoming competition in the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games. Competitions start Monday and wrap up June 11 in Orlando, Florida.
Led by police escort, Mrotek and Buck arrived in a top-down convertible, accompanied by their coach Lisa Wisniewski. Friends, family, local politicians and even members of the Chicago Fire and Police Departments cheered and applauded their arrival.
For decades, Mrotek, of Palos Heights, had participated in Special Olympics activities, including gymnastics, basketball and swimming, but was never chosen to compete nationally.
Now at 43, having survived two heart surgeries and now wearing a pacemaker, she will compete as one of four members of Illinois’ Special Olympics boccie ball team.
Mrotek, who has Down syndrome, worked for 15 years at the Marcus Orland Park Cinema, keeping the lobby tidy and snack station stocked with napkins and cup lids. Now she works in a similar capacity, helping to keep things running smoothly at A.C.E. Therapies in Merrionette Park, which provides therapies for children with disabilities.
Since age 5, she has participated in Mount Greenwood special recreation classes three days a week.
“I think this has been an outlet for Karyn’s athleticism, but more of a social outlet,” said her mother, Donna Mrotek, who retired five years ago from a career in information technology at Palos Community Hospital.
Both women have made lifelong friends through Mt. Greenwood’s Special Recreation program, which knows no community boundaries and is open to children and adults with mental disabilities. “It’s been more of our own little community,” Donna Mrotek said.
Along with Mrotek’s mom, a few close members of that “community” will be staying at Disney World to cheer Mrotek on.
Buck, 23, of Tinley Park, has not let autism hold him back either. He has participated in the Mt. Greenwood Special Recreation program since age 8 and taken up a variety of sports, including gymnastics, bowling, weightlifting, basketball, boccie ball, kayaking, golf, snow shoeing, archery, softball and swimming.
In Orlando, Buck will compete in three swimming events: the 4×50 medley relay, 100-meter breast stroke and 100-meter freestyle.
Buck attended the special needs program at Clissold Elementary in Beverly and graduated from Lincoln-Way East High School after his family moved to Tinley Park. He’s now enrolled in the adult transition program at Lincoln-Way Central.
Like Mrotek, he also works and has held part-time jobs at Hickory Farms, Alsip Nursery and T.J. Maxx. His dream job would be to work at Imagine Theatre near his home, according to his mother, Kathleen Buck.
Buck’s mother, father, brother and two sisters will be going to Orlando to cheer him on.
Wednesday’s special send-off ceremony kicked off with Special Olympics gold medalist Sibohan Clancy enthusiastically delivering the national anthem in a voice that quavered on high notes but never wavered in volume.
Later in the ceremony, Clancy also wowed the crowd with an enthusiastic wolf cry of support. She was one of 10 Special Olympics ambassadors who addressed the crowd and wore a bright green shirt as a show of support.
Among the ambassadors were medalists and ribbon holders, figure skaters, skiers, gymnasts, archers, swimmers, softball players and boccie ballplayers who had traveled to competitions in American cities and destinations beyond, including Graz, Austria.
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After congratulatory remarks from Chicago 19th Ward Ald. Matt O’Shea, state Rep. Fran Hurley, state Sen. Bill Cunningham and Special Olympics and Mt. Greenwood Park officials, Mrotek and Buck addressed the crowd.
“Thanks for being here to wish me luck,” Mrotek said.
“I want to cheer on other athletes and athletes in the past,” Buck said. “Thank you coaches for cheering me on as well.”
Mementos presented to Mrotek and Buck included commemorative plaques, 21 Pineapples Hawaiian shirts created by fellow Special Olympics athlete Nate Simon, state of Illinois flags, and swim caps autographed by Olympic Gold medalist Michael Phelps.
Coach Wisniewski also came away with a special token of appreciation — a wooden cutting board shaped like the state of Illinois.
The crowd stuck around for refreshments while Mrotek and Buck sat at a table autographing photos.
Susan DeGrane is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.