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Ballyhoo Brigade How it All Started

Little City’s Ballyhoo Brigade at Special Olympics Illinois Summer Games 2016.

Outcomes, indicators, indicators, outcomes and the drumbeat goes on and on and nothing ever gets done. One of the silliest uses of the word outcome is when it gets confused with the word goal. When people ask me what are the outcomes for something before it happens, I scratch my head and say I’ll tell you when it’s over. The goal for this story was to start a powerlifting team at Little City.

It started when Aaron Hirthe, my first partner in the adult Special Olympics program, informed me that we still had time to get a powerlifting team together for the 2010 district meet. I went and found a Little City employee who also happened to be a fellow South Sider and who shared my passions—Rizik Mohammad. We had no idea what we were getting into.

We decided that we would need a facility to train since the agency didn’t have free weights. Using my knowledge of the training habits of college athletes, I went over to Harper College and asked to use the weight room from 6:00 p.m. – 7:30 pm every Friday. I give a huge thanks to Tony Amarino, Dana Tanebaum and the rest of the Harper community for taking us in and allowing us to train there for seven years, they were truly great hosts. Hopefully, when construction is complete they will welcome us back.

With a facility locked down, next came the assessments. Since we didn’t have an on-site facility and needed to make a deadline I used the old Nautilus equipment in what is now the Sharenow Center. One of our four lifters could not be assessed because of comfort but we kept him with the team and he trained with us every week at Harper.

We began training them knowing virtually nothing at the time. Rizik trained the bench press athletes and I took the deadlifters. We made slow progress towards the meet, but every practice was fun for all of us.

Our first competition was fast approaching and we still didn’t have uniforms. I went to a local sporting goods store and picked up three singlets and three large weight belts that met the specifications for the competition. I was very lucky and now I buy any replacement or new uniforms when we add team members.

Finally, it was meet day. The original members of the Ballyhoo Brigade, Danny Schellenberger, Jimmy Stelmach and Josh Marabanian, went to North Central College to lift. We weighed in, warmed up and prepared to bench. I coached Jimmy and Danny and Rizik coached Josh. Danny got a lift with his first attempt and missed his next two. Josh got his first two and missed his third. Jimmy got his first two and missed his third. All three made all of their attempts in deadlifts.

Rizik and I, being novices, thought that we might have a few medals and some ribbons. What made it worse was the fact that all of the awards were handed to the lifters in envelopes, so we had no idea what we earned. Imagine our surprise when the envelopes all jingled. Rizik opened one and it was all gold. I checked the other two and Danny had two golds and a silver. The other was all gold. Eight out of nine gold medals in our first meet.

Four weeks later in Bloomington Jimmy Stelmach would win three gold medals and has since become the most decorated athlete ever for Little City Special Olympics. Danny picked up a gold in deadlift and Josh won two silvers.

Since those humble beginnings, this team has produced more successes than any other program at Little City. We had a five-year run where every athlete on the team –  which at one point grew to 14 athletes – qualified for state. Every athlete that has ever competed for Little City at the state powerlifting competition has won at least one state gold medal. Jimmy Stelmach is now the strongest lifter in the 130-pound weight class for Illinois Special Olympics. He needs a Brinks truck to carry all his gold.

Kevin Mastin has had the biggest deadlift in Illinois for the last two years and Kevin Desmond had the biggest deadlift in his weight class in 2015.

This program is the gold standard for any program at Little City and is nipping on the heels of being the best program in Illinois. Through all of our ups and downs at Little City (mostly ups), the one constant for Rizik and I, has been this program.

I wonder what would have happened if we waited around worrying about the outcomes. Oh yeah, the outcomes were great.

“Little City uses an affirming message – that it’s a good world, there’s a place for my kids in the world and Little City will help them find it.”

Rachel, mother of children receiving home-based support services