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Katie Schubauer/MEDILL

Chicagoan Amelia Hernandez has competed in every Special Olympics Chicago since their creation in 1968.

An Olympic flame that just keeps shining

by Katie Schubauer
May 9, 2014

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Katie Schubauer/MEDILL

Amelia Hernandez earned first place in the softball throw at the 46th Chicago Special Olympics


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Katie Schubauer/MEDILL

Athletes from Piotrowski Park join thousands of competitors at the Special Olympics Opening Ceremonies at Soldier Field Tuesday.

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Special Olympics Chicago

At age 11, Amelia Hernandez was one of 1,000 athletes at the inaugural Special Olympics held in Chicago in 1968. 

As the crowd cheered in Soldier Field for the Opening Ceremonies of the 46th Special Olympic Games, some of the newcomers were clearly overwhelmed. But one athlete entered with the cool ease of familiarity. She had done this a few times before.

Amelia Hernandez was just eleven years old when the first ever Special Olympic games were held in Chicago in 1968. On July 20th of that year, Hernandez walked into Soldier Field and took home a gold medal in the 50-meter run. She has competed in every Special Olympics since.

“I want to keep going. I don’t want to stop,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez defies her 57 years of age. Not only does she compete in track and field events, but she will also vie for medals in the softball throw, weightlifting, powerlifting and bench press. In the winter, she plays goalie on a hockey team. Hernandez trains at a facility in Piotrowksi Park with coaches Luis Fuentes and Dave Donohue. Donohue has been her coach for the past 25 years.

“Amelia’s awesome,” Donohue said. “She has the spirit of fair play, sportsmanship and fierce competition. She will give 100 percent no matter what she’s doing, practice or competition going for the gold.”

On Monday, Hernandez earned fourth place in the 400-meter walk race. That made her express what Donohue called some “momentary disappointment,” but she bounced back and earned first place in the softball throw.

“I’m very happy but I’m not surprised,” Fuentes said.

Since the inaugural games in 1968, the Special Olympics Chicago has expanded to include 5,000 athletes and now offers 43 events. While the games themselves have changed drastically, Fuentes says Hernandez has not.

“She’s changed physically but her competitive nature and her drive are still there all these years later,” Fuentes said.

This June, her competitive nature will take Hernandez to the USA Special Olympic Games in Princeton, New Jersey. She was one of 20 athletes chosen to represent Illinois.

Hernandez’s coaches described her as a model of sportsmanship and motivation around her teammates, but they also believe her influence reaches farther than the borders of Piotrowski Park.

“She’s an inspiration to anyone that’s ever come from behind,” Fuentes said. “She’s out here proving she can compete and win just like anyone else and she’s been doing that for 46 years.”