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Olympic heroics weren't confined to London this summer. Athletic daring was also on display at Illinois State University, which hosted the Special Olympics for three days in mid-June. A five-member team of athletes from Oak Park competed there for the first time. These novices had no idea what to expect but walked away with a fistful of medals.
Among the instructors who readied them for their surprising success was Leigh Reisberg, who has worked for the West Suburban Special Recreation Association (WSSRA) since 2008. The organization trained the Special Olympians at the Oak Park Gymnastics Center from January to March.
"We had two-hour training sessions, going over their routines," the Oak Park native recalled, "The kids loved it. They were excited. They didn't know how much work it was going to take."
The sessions started with a 20-minute warm-up of push-ups, sit-ups and running. Reisberg helped train the boys for rings, parallel bars, pommel horse, etc. The girls concentrated on floor exercise, balance beam, uneven bars and the vault.
"I have no background in gymnastics but I learned a lot," Reisberg said. "It takes flexibility, core strength and balance." Many of the athletes were learning brand new skills. "They had to know how to position themselves properly. They had to memorize routines."
Qualifying trials for the Special Olympics was held on March 11 and the three boys and two girls from the Oak Park Gymnastics Center made it. Clad in red and black uniforms, they became a tight-knit crew.
On June 15, the games began at ISU. The athletes stayed in dorms, creating their own Olympic Village, while family and friends booked hotel rooms. "All the parents and siblings came," Reisberg said. "I was so honored to be a part of this." Along with other coaches, she roomed with the athletes and saw the team growing closer and interacting with Olympians from other areas.
During the competition, athletes were divided into different levels, depending on their knowledge and skill levels. Ryan Gravely, 16, was one of the more experienced. She has been taking gymnastics for five years and competed in the balance beam and the vault.
"It took a lot of courage," her mother, Whitney, said, "but you should have seen the smiles on their faces." Like most of the parents, she didn't know what to expect. "No one had competed in that environment. But they came together as a team. My daughter did her routine independently and got two medals. She felt competent. It was very rewarding." Ryan's teammates included Jack Butler, Lorenzo DiNuzzo, Jenna Ricks and Cooper Ricks.
Whitney Gravely was grateful for the effort it took for the coaches to get them ready. "All the coaches gave 110 percent," she noted. "We're already enrolled for the fall program. We're going to see if we can get my daughter to compete in all the events."
Reisberg was just one of many who contributed to the team's success. Megan Foster also aided the athletes. Foster has been a WSSRA inclusion aide for the past three years. She noted that the Special Olympians have known each other for five years. "It's a good opportunity for them to be in a mainstream class, but it was also good for them to have their separate team, to go at their own pace."
When the team traveled to ISU, they were joined by the WSSRA track and swim teams. The gymnasts got to watch some track & field and swimming competitions. The runners and swimmers returned the favor by supporting the gymnasts at their events.
"It was very awesome," Foster said. "They all won gold medals and some bronzes." Foster roomed with medal-winner Jenna Ricks in the ISU dorms. "The parents loved it," Foster continued. "They were thrilled to see their kids showing off new skills."
One of Foster's co-workers, Carmen DePillo, worked with the gymnasts until mid-March, when he had to drop out to pursue an opportunity with the Chicago Fire Department. Jamie Lapke, manager of the gymnastics center, took his place.
"Sunday is normally my day off," Lapke said, "but I had to make sure they had enough coaches. We practiced from 4 to 5:30." Sunday afternoons were ideal because the team didn't have to contend with any distractions. "We had them wear their uniforms and practice exactly what they were going to do." This included saluting before starting their routine.
Lapke was unable to make the trip to ISU but had full confidence in the team. "The kids blew away the competition and came back with gold and silver. Their parents are appreciative every day that we're training their kids to be successful." Lapke plans to start the training program again in January. "We might expand the program, it's been so successful."
"Megan and Leigh were awesome," Lapke said, spreading the praise around. "They've been coming here as inclusion aides for years." Besides assisting with the training, Reisberg hosted a pool party for the team at her parents' home.
Reaching kids is literally in Reisberg's blood. Her father is a pediatric surgeon, who specializes in correcting cleft palates. Her mother is a pediatric care nurse at Shriner's Hospital.
"We used to go to holiday parties for special needs kids," Riesberg recalls. "Every kid is so different. You have to find a way to connect with them." She began connecting with kids as a babysitter in high school and also worked as a nanny for an autistic child and conducted therapy sessions for autistic kids. She earned her bachelor's degree in Early Childhood Education and also learned how to sign.
Reisberg was new to gymnastics. Her normal milieu is the skating rink. "I was a competitive figure skater for 15 years," she said. "I also played hockey." She's now using her skating expertise to teach skaters with special needs at Ridgeland Common for WSSRA.
In addition to their Olympic training, the team members participate in mainstream gymnastic classes. At a recent session, 27 aspiring gymnasts watched a video on rules and safety, then warmed up with stretching exercises. The WSSRA aides each were responsible for an athlete with special needs.
After warm-ups, the group was divided into three classes. Nine boys took turns jumping into the foam pit and "swimming" across it. They moved onto the bars and practiced push ups, pull ups and extending their hang time.
They were surrounded by inspirational slogans displayed on the walls, such as, "You are not finished when you lose. You are finished when you quit."
There was no quit in any of them, just bubbling enthusiasm. The WSSRA aides demonstrated the exercises and modeled the proper form. One boy squealed and smiled after dismounting from the bar. Another blew on his palms after hanging the requisite 10 seconds. The students were kept in perpetual motion, as they rotated through the gymnastic apparatuses.
An all-female class busied themselves on the balance beam and pommel horse while the boys moved onto the mats to practice their floor exercise. The class culminated with the boys racing across the mats to launch themselves off trampolines while executing front and back flips.
As for the Special Olympians, they're ready to go again in January 2013. They plan to learn new routines and once again go for the gold.
Like it says on the wall at the center: "Gymnastics is Life. The rest is just details."