CHICAGO — Soldier Field was far from packed on Tuesday morning, and there wasn't a Bear in sight. Still, the spirit of competition was in the air.
Some 45 years after the first-ever Special Olympics event for disabled athletes took place at Soldier Field, 3,000 Olympians from Chicago streamed down the track Tuesday morning as part of the "Parade of Athletes," the largest group in the event's history.
"Whenever you get the blues, come to this," said Larry Jordan, pointing down the track. "It'll just warm your heart."
Jordan, a volunteer for four years, leads the parade with other members of the Knights of Columbus. Decked out in "funny hats" and black suits, the men walked in step, beginning the parade's march.
"It's really a labor of love for me," said Timothy M. Rubens, a coach from McKinley Vocational Center, which has 45 athletes competing in this year's Spring track and field games. Rubens said the event organizers do an excellent job of forming groups for the competition by skill level, so the athletes enjoy a "level playing field" and there are "no blowouts."
"The competition helps give the students a sense of normalcy," said Rubens, who also coaches softball and basketball at McKinley.
The athletes hailed from more than a hundred area schools and learning centers, many of them part of Chicago Public Schools. Hundreds of volunteers in red T-shirts lined the track, applauding and high-fiving the athletes as they strutted down the track holding school signs and waving to fans in the stands.
“Let’s go Lane Tech!” one middle-aged volunteer shouted from the track, swooping in to give an athlete a high five. It was almost an hour into the parade, and the volunteer was still heartily shouting for every school. “You got to, for them,” he said, returning to his cheers.
Another volunteer, Gil Gomez, 62, said his daughter had persuaded him to come out to the day’s event. “I’m really enjoying myself. You see these kids out here and you just have to hand it to them,” he said.
Even with a palpable sense of camaraderie and team spirit, Noemi Hernandez, a 27-year-old assistant coach from Northside Learning Center, said her team of more than a hundred competitors won’t lose their focus.
“We’re here to win a lot of gold medals, of course!” said Hernandez, laughing.