Story by Will Simmons • Photos by Dominic Baima

After a two-year hiatus, the Special Olympics returned to host its Spring Games at O’Brien Stadium on Friday. All gold medalists advance to the Summer Games from this regional qualifier. 

“I think for being our first time back in two years, it’s gone pretty smoothly. Families, athletes, as always, our students and faculty, the key volunteers, everybody has been ,” said Katie Havercroft, who has helped at every Special Olympics event on EIU’s campus since 1995. “Super supportive, super understanding and showing good sportsmanship. And so it’s been a really great event.”

Havercroft, who has a doctorate in special education and family studies, was a student at Eastern Illinois University in 1995.

Fifth grader Emiel Thiago-Vargas, who received a gold medal in the javelin competition, said he was in second grade for his first Special Olympics. He said he was a little nervous to show off his skills in front of the large crowd, but once he picked the right javelin he felt his confidence rise.

“I did use the gold javelin,” Thiago-Vargas said. “Green is my favorite color, but I decided to use gold because I knew that would make a lot of sense if I got the gold medal.”

Thiago-Vargas goes to school in Neoga where he works on javelin with his teammates. He likes javelin, btw he also enjoys playing dodgeball after practices.

Blake Niemerg, who placed first in the running long jump, said a treat for him is watching hockey, but another was getting gold in his track and field event. Niemerg said he started competing six years ago, and has recieved other medals at past Special Olympic events.

Mark Shuff from Shelbyville was another dual-medalist at the Spring Games. Shuff said he earned a bronze in the softball throw, which is akin to shot put, where distance is measured. He also received a gold medal for the 100-meter walk event. 

Kait Saucedo, an Eastern student who volunteered at the event, said working at the Spring Games was amazing and the the athletes brightened her day. She says she will be back to volunteer next year.

“I think, honestly, just seeing their happy faces,” said Saucedo, who helped hand out awards. “It didn’t matter whether they had a second place, (athletes) all were super happy with each other, and were cheering each other on.”

Tyler Lamkin, an athlete from Camargo who trains in Arcola, said the volunteers helped give him a boost on the field. Lamkin earned gold in the softball throw and battled through some discomfort to get silver in the 100 meters.

“Yeah, it was pretty big, it felt very exciting,” Lamkin said. “Kinda wish I would’ve, you know, worked a little bit faster, but my legs were kinda hurting me, but it felt very awesome to go out there and compete with everyone else.”