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Alum leads team to Special Olympics Summer Games

Amanda Rickenberg smiles

Teacher and coach Amanda Rickenberg meets with her team before the start of last weekend's Special Olympics Illinois Summer Games.

Amanda (Cross) Rickenberg ’07 always knew what she wanted to do with her life.

She enrolled at Illinois State for its education program, and her decision to become a special education major was an easy one, motivated in part by personal experience. Amanda’s two younger siblings are twins, one of which has Klinefelter syndrome, a chromosomal condition that affects male physical and cognitive development.

“Going through and seeing what my mom and dad together experienced as parents, what my brother experienced in his school setting, just fostered a passion for special needs,” Rickenberg said.

A special education teacher at Lincoln Elementary in Morton for the past five years, Rickenberg teaches children with special needs at the kindergarten through third grade levels. Not only has she dedicated her career to the special needs field, Rickenberg has gone above and beyond the classroom by starting a Special Olympics program in the Morton school district.

Coach Rickenberg and her team joined thousands of other Special Olympics coaches, athletes, families, and supporters from around the state in June at the annual Summer Games, hosted on the Illinois State campus.

Special Olympics athlete celebrates

A Special Olympics athlete celebrates during an event last weekend on the Illinois State campus. (Photo courtesy of Special Olympics Illinois)

“I just thought that was really important for our kids to be able to access something through their local school district,” she said. “I ran it by my principal and my special ed director, got their graces and their approval, and we just jumped right in and started.”

Rickenberg knew the school district could provide a valuable opportunity for students with special needs, and she put her leadership skills to work right away coordinating and setting up the program.

“What we’ve found when we started the program was it fostered true friendships between the kids, and it was so neat because once they started to compete and learn the skills of the sport we were able to step back and just see the true friendships that the athletes really built among themselves, and it gave them an opportunity to compete on a fair-level playing field, to compete at a level that they were really successful at,” she said. “That was the most rewarding thing, just seeing them have the same opportunities outside of school that their peers are having.”

Encouraging team work, setting individual goals, and developing a sense of accomplishment are key components of the Special Olympics program. As head coach for the Morton school district, Rickenberg’s track team practiced twice a week for eight weeks leading up to the Summer Games. It also allowed Rickenberg to put her high school distance-running background to good use.

“They practice as a whole group, but we try and individualize feedback for each of them in terms of what they need to work on as individuals, also with the expectation that they’re working on their individual skill at home,” Rickenberg said.

It was Rickenberg’s younger brother with Klinefelter syndrome who initially sparked her interest in Special Olympics. Beginning swimming lessons as a child, Rickenberg’s brother spent years learning how to swim, eventually leading him to compete in the Special Olympics through SOAR (Special Opportunities Available in Recreation), the local Bloomington-Normal team. Rickenberg also worked for SOAR during her undergraduate years at Illinois State to pay her way through school, developing and nurturing her skills even further.

Most of Rickenberg’s students competed at the Summer Games as individuals in either running or field, as well as one relay team.

“So much of special education we focus on individual goals and individual strengths for students, and just seeing the kids grow and learn and conquer—things that may have once been challenges—is the most rewarding part,” Rickenberg said.

Find out more about Special Olympics Illinois on the organization’s website.

Brooke Burns can be reached at