SOUTH CHICAGO — Veteran Special Olympics athlete Isaiah Cunningham is ready for his first chance at a national gold medal.
Cunningham, 34, lives with a disability that makes reading, writing and driving a challenge for him. He also puts almost 400 pounds on the Olympic deadlift.
Cunningham, from Austin, regularly participates in 12 sports as part of the Special Olympics program at Kosciuszko Park – and he recently found a talent for powerlifting. A Los Angeles Lakers fan, Cunningham said he was known in his field as “The LeBron of Kosciuszko Park.”
Special Olympics Chicago offers year-round sports programs through the Park District and Chicago Public Schools for local athletes with disabilities ages 8 and older. This year, Chicago will send 11 of its local stars to Orlando for the Special Olympics USA National Games in June.
On Tuesday, Cunningham warmed up for his shot at glory by throwing a shot put farther than anyone else at the Special Olympics Chicago Spring Games, an annual track and field competition. More than 1,500 athletes and 500 volunteers gathered at Eckersall Park for the games.
Cunningham said he has played sports – including basketball, floor hockey, tennis, golf, flag football, bocce and volleyball – with Special Olympics Chicago since he was 19. years.
The community makes him feel good, he says.
“There is no jitters, nothing here. I’m just being myself and having fun with my friends,” Cunningham said. “I love getting to know everyone as I am.”
Athletes from Douglass and Norwood Parks gave Cunningham and his Kosciuszko teammates high-fives as they waited in the sweltering heat to throw the shot put. Other athletes participated in road races, long distance races, long jumps, pentathlon, softball throws and tennis throws.
Cunningham won a gold medal in the shot put.
“It helps build confidence for Nationals, to get ready for my sporting event. No games, no jokes; I take it seriously. I’m a serious athlete,” Cunningham said. “I think they should put me on the Wheaties box.”
Cunningham said he didn’t play on sports teams growing up, but found his luck with the Special Olympics. He will now choose any sport he can try, said his trainer, Renee Chimino.
“I went to see Isaiah and it was – just holy cow, this guy now lifts close to 400 pounds,” Chimino said. “His enjoyment is just pure bliss. These guys are so humbled, to be here and to have the opportunity to play.
Aldus. Matthew O’Shea (19th), vice president of Special Olympics Chicago, said the pandemic has been particularly difficult for young people with disabilities. This year’s Spring Games are the first in two years that “finally bring everyone together”, O’Shea said.
“All the children have suffered huge losses over the past 26 months, but our special needs population has really missed the socialization, the companionship, the practices,” O’Shea said. “When you speak to our athletes, you hear that they are part of their family.”
Mike Benavente, parks manager for Special Olympics Chicago, said there’s no better atmosphere in the city for watching sports.
“The energy here is contagious, especially if you’ve seen them make that progress,” Benavente said. “It cheers you up a little bit more than you do for the Bears.”
Cunningham said he enjoys aging gracefully as a Special Olympics athlete – and being a mentor to the younger ones.
“People look up to me here,” Cunningham said with a smile. “I help them.”
The goal at the nationals is to “have fun, do my best and keep trying to pass it on,” Cunningham said.
He plans to lift a lot of weight.
“I didn’t know I could do it until I tried,” Cunningham said.
Chicagoans participating in the 2022 US National Special Olympics:
- Matthew Gorski, Shabbona Park, athletics
- Frank Kajdanowski, Shabbona Park, Petanque
- Karen Mrotek, Mount Greenwood Park, Petanque
- Kenneth Ogden, Vittum Park, bocce
- Corey Williams, Gage Park, Flag Football
- Christian Arreola, Shabbona Park, flag football
- Peter Hertl, Shabbona Park, flag football
- Isaiah Cunningham, Kosciuszko Park, powerlifting
- James Naughton, Shabbona Park, powerlifting
- Matthew Buck, Mt. Greenwood Park, Swimming
- Matthew Danaher, Independence Park, Swimming
Listen to “It’s Alright: A Block Club Chicago Podcast”: