Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.
– motto of Special Olympics

Tammy Carlson and her husband Jim had no idea how far Special Olympics would take their daughter, Mackenzie, until she walked onto to a soccer field outside New York City last year. Mackenzie earned a spot on Illinois’ unified soccer Special Olympics team, competing at the national level.

“I think I cried eight times in eight days,” said Tammy Carlson, assistant vice president of human resources at Illinois State. “It was a wonderful experience for all of us. We had seven family members who traveled to the games. Mackenzie had her own cheering section.”

The event reflected the Olympic games in so many ways, noted Jim Carlson. “It was amazing. They had matching uniforms and casual wear, and stayed in their own Olympic Village at The College of New Jersey,” he said. “It was wonderful – for Mackenzie and for us – to see what she could accomplish.”

Mackenzie, who was born 15 weeks premature and has cerebral palsy, began competing in Special Olympics Illinois three years ago at the urging of her physical education teacher at Parkside Junior High. Though she began in basketball, it was when she participated in unified soccer that she began to shine, say her parents.

“Unified sports pair a child with disabilities to one without disabilities,” said Jim Carlson. “It’s an amazing program that not only gives opportunities to the children with disabilities, but it lets those without disabilities see that there is so much more to a person than a disability.”

image of Mackezie Xarlson playing Unified Soccer

Mackenzie Carlson on the field representing Illinois in the national Special Olympics.

After the Normal West Unified Soccer Team earned gold at the state games, Mackenzie and her partner tried out for the Illinois team. They were selected and before they knew it they joined the more than 100 athletes representing the Illinois Delegation at the national 2014 Special Olympic games. “I like competing because it makes me feel accomplished and equal to people without disabilities,” said Mackenzie. “It feels amazing to be on the field, and I can be proud of myself no matter what the outcome of the game.”

Though the experience was an incredible one, Tammy Carlson noted the games are just one piece of what Special Olympics has provided Mackenzie. “Through Special Olympics, she has served on area and statewide committees, and had a variety of leadership roles she would not have taken on otherwise,” she said.

Mackenzie was active in the “Get Rid of the ‘R Word’” campaign to eradicate the use of disparaging language against those with mental disabilities. “She helped plan the conference and presented to her peers,” said Jim Carlson. She has become an advocate for unified soccer, and also joined her former PE teacher in encouraging more teachers to recommend students for Special Olympics.

This year, watching his daughter speak to the Special Olympics Illinois staff about her travels and the USA games, Jim Carlson said he realized his daughter had become a leader. “You don’t hear a lot of 14-year-olds who are that eloquent, and here was Mackenzie, completely at ease talking to a room full of adults. Special Olympics has given her so much.”

“We want people to know what Special Olympics has done for our daughter and we also hope they will choose to support Special Olympics,” said Tammy Carlson. “They do great things for the athletes.”

Special Olympics is one of nearly 2,000 charities in the SECA catalog. The SECA campaign runs through Nov. 7 at Illinois State. Download a form and send it to SECA Chair Georgia Martin at Campus Box 3390.

For more information, go to SECA.IllinoisState.edu.