ST. CHARLES – A first-time trip to the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games is just the tip of the iceberg for St. Charles North’s Janna Blowers.
Having been born with Moebius syndrome, a disability that causes partial facial paralysis and hinders muscle movement, Blowers, 19, was one of four athletes representing the state of Illinois for gymnastics at the Games from June 14 to 21, and came home with much more than the three medals she earned. Blowers, who competed in five events, earned silver medals in the balance beam and floor exercise events, and a bronze on uneven bars. Former Russian Olympic gymnast Svetlana Boginskaya presented each Special Olympian their medals.
Yet, it is the friendships and experiences that will stick with her for a lifetime.
Upon the athletes’ arrival, they were loaded onto coach buses, and police-escorted down the New Jersey Turnpike; the opening ceremony was held at the Prudential Center in Newark. With appearances from celebrities such as “Glee” star Jane Lynch and NBA player Michael Carter-Williams and a dinner and cruise through the New York Harbor, there wasn’t a shortage of excitement for the athletes, yet for Blowers, it was being with her team and coaches, and encouraging each other, that she enjoyed most.
“It seems that even with all the benefits of athletics, it is the relationships that matter. Athletic participation as a means to establishing those relationships,” her mother, Betsy Blowers, wrote in an email.
At the Games, the idea of “Unified Sports,” or the pairing of a disabled and non-disabled athlete as partners is at the heart of the Special Olympics, as it emphasizes the importance of integration of people of all abilities. In addition, throughout the Games an abundance of support came from an estimated 10,000 volunteers. Thousands of supporters flooded the events, and always referred to the competitors as “Champions”-coinciding with the Games’ overall theme of “Revealing Champions.”
“Everything was really well organized. It gave the athletes every opportunity to succeed,” said Jennifer Hitt, Blowers’ floor coach at the Games.
Blowers began her involvement in gymnastics at the age of 5 as a supplement to her physical therapy, and three years later, she became involved in the Special Olympics. She trains through the Fox Valley Special Recreation Association at Excel Gymnastics Academy in Geneva. An 11-year Special Olympic veteran, Blowers not only competes in gymnastics, but track and field as well, and together, she has compiled an impressive résumé throughout her career, going to the Illinois Special Olympics Summer Games or state competition and medaling a combined 10 times.
Blowers first started planning to compete in the USA Games this past November. Through a process that included an application and letters of reference, she was accepted. From there, she attended a “processing day” in which she was measured for uniforms and met her teammates: Karlee Darow, Sabrina Walega and Danielle Mongeon and the coaches. In April, the team met for a three-day camp, which gave the athletes another chance to train and meet each other.
With the help of Hitt, Blowers was able to break out of her usual quiet shell and shine. Hitt recalled when she first met Blowers at their three-day camp, she was extremely quiet, but by the time the Games rolled around, she blossomed.
“She was talking to her teammates, and during an event, one of them made a mistake, but Janna was right there to comfort and put her arm around them,” Hitt said.
“She’s tiny, but mighty,” Hitt added.
Besides gymnastics, Blowers will participate in a district transition program, which allows for special needs students the opportunity to do volunteer work and job training.
“She’s an amazing young lady. … I’m sure I’ll be seeing her at state [in the future],” Hitt said.