More than 300 top young athletes from around the country arrived at Deerfield and Lake Forest High Schools in July to compete for medals and beat their personal bests.
But unlike most athletic competitions, the participants were all significantly physically or visually disabled.
The event, hosted and organized by the Lake Forest-based Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association (GLASA), marked the 26th year of the National Junior Disability Championships (NJDC).
The NJDC was created to provide sports opportunities for disabled children, which GLASA Executive Director Cindy Housner says increases their self esteem—they become more confident, having shown what they can do. The competitions also help the young people develop life skills, form strong friendships and find role models.
“It provides an opportunity for them to obtain respect from their peers who don’t have disabilities,” Housner says. She believes that the games teach the athletes independence and other skills that transfer to their daily lives.
Under Housner’s supervision, the eight-day competition featured swimming, 3-on-3 wheelchair basketball, track, field, archery, weightlifting and tennis. Representing the best young athletes in their sports in the country, participants ages 7 to 21 had qualified at regional meets held earlier in the year.
In many ways, it’s clear that the NJDC has been a life changing experience for these athletes.
“Some people say that they can’t do anything because of their disability, but these games allow you to compete in events that you’re good at,” says 18-year-old track and field star Dion Carr of Bolingbrook.
Mary Kate Callahan of Western Springs says, “Seeing all the older top athletes has motivated me to do better and hopefully be a role model for the little kids.”