MONTCLARE — Determination runs in the Rodriguez family bloodlines.
William Rodriguez has been involved with Special Olympics Illinois since he was 14. The Montclare resident is 31 now, and, after years of trying and winning more than 100 medals in several sports, he finally was selected to his first all-state team.
As a member of the Team Illinois volleyball squad, Rodriguez will participate in the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games from June 14-21 in Princeton, N.J.
"I'm just so happy I made the team, and I'm happy I'm going to New Jersey," Rodriguez said. "I'm so glad my hard work paid off."
His father, Tomas, understands overcoming adversity. When he was 12, Tomas, his parents and older brother left their native Cuba in the dead of night on a 21-foot boat with 13 other people. The vessel's small motor ran out of gas early the next morning, and they floated in the open sea before they were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and taken to Key West, Florida.
"We didn't know if we were going to make it," said Tomas Rodriguez, 64, whose family moved to Chicago soon after arriving in the United States.
Tomas Rodriguez, a Schurz High School graduate, strongly believes "God gives you stuff you can handle." That includes surviving several years in the jungles of the Vietnam War as a private first class in the Army.
So when two of his children — William and daughter Somme — were diagnosed with severe learning disabilities that would require a lifetime of care, Tomas said he and his wife Colomba were ready for the challenge.
"I figured God gave me these kids because he knew I could handle it," Tomas Rodriguez said. "When you have kids, especially when they're special, that's your job as a parent to take care of them."
The Special Olympics — an international athletic event first held in Soldier Field in 1968 — has been critical in their development, he said. Somme, 33, has been a Special Olympian almost all her life. William became hooked while a freshman at Northside Learning Center High School in North Park.
William Rodriguez has been part of track and field, basketball, 12-inch softball, bowling, roller hockey, golf, volleyball and weightlifting teams. Tomas Rodriguez was the coach for many of those teams before retiring a few years ago from the Northside school, where he was also a child welfare attendant.
For the last 13 years, William Rodriguez has worked 12 to 20 hours a week as a clerk at Jewel-Osco. He spends much of the rest of his free time at Shabbona Park field house in Dunning, where he practices Monday through Saturday with other Special Olympians.
"His social life is at that park," Tomas Rodriguez said. "All his friends are there. ... Special Olympics is his life."
William Rodriguez said it was a longtime dream to qualify for the USA Games, which are held every four years and feature the country's top Special Olympians. Athletes have to be nominated by their local coaches and then try out.
Hannah Sheets, the Team Illinois volleyball head coach, said William Rodriguez's all-around athleticism stood out during tryouts last November and during the squad's occasional practices in Bloomington and Champaign since. William was one of 25 athletes who vied for 10 roster spots.
"He understands teamwork real well," Sheets said of William Rodriguez, who splits time as a setter and outside hitter. "William is good at taking whatever role we give him."
William Rodriguez said he's enjoyed his progression to the top of Special Olympics. The journey has given him confidence and kept him in great physical shape.
Most importantly, he said, it's brought him closer to his father.
"I love my dad," William Rodriguez said. "Ya know, I just love him so much."
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