Six years ago, Alex Huegen, of Germantown, didn’t want to leave his house. He was depressed, lonely and hated sports. But Special Olympics changed all that.
Today, the teenager with autism is the reigning Special Olympics Athlete of the Year in Illinois.
A junior at Central High School in Breese, Huegen competes in several sports for Special Olympics and is on his school’s cross country team. He’s reduced running a 5K from 45 to 20 minutes.
He was among those participating in Row Raiser July 8 at CrossFit Voyage in O’Fallon, one of 18 locations around the state where athletes raised funds to benefit Special Olympics. Two others will take place in the fall.
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“We raised $3,120 with the O’Fallon event. There were 40 total participants,” said Justin Dunning, Special Olympics Illinois Area 12 coordinator. “Across the state, there was a total of $57,789 raised.”
At the workout facility, located at 102R State St., five teams pulled the distance of a marathon (26.2 miles) on a row machine.
Special Olympics offers year-round training and competition in 19 sports for more than 22,500 athletes with intellectual disabilities and nearly 20,000 Young Athletes ages 2-7 with and without intellectual disabilities.
Special Olympics transforms the lives of people with intellectual disabilities, allowing them to realize their full potential in sports and in life, Dunning said.
Special Olympics programs enhance physical fitness, motor skills, self-confidence, social skills and encourage family and community support.
District 12 provides programming for people in Bond, Calhoun, Clinton, Fayette, Jersey, Madison, Monroe, Montgomery, St. Clair and Washington counties.
The first Row Raiser took place in Quincy in 2015 and raised $10,000. This is the second year that CrossFit Voyage has participated.
Gallanti, who has been a trainer for 15 years, said he wants to give back to the community.
“Forty people came out and got through this together. They have built friendships. We are energized by what’s happening,” he said. “We want to do this every year.”
He said a client’s daughter won a medal in Special Olympics, and “came out of her shell.”
“The power of moving your body can be so empowering,” he said.
He believes crossfit training can help people striving for better health and wellness.
“It’s not just for the young and bulletproof,” he said.
Alex Huegen participated in the rowing event, and shared his story.
“I get to play sports more often. I meet new friends,” he said.
His mother, Crystalyn Huegen, said Alex didn’t talk until he was 4 years old, and he didn’t want to leave the house when he was 10.
“He had tuned out. He was made fun of and ridiculed for being different. We couldn’t protect him,” she said. “He found his other home in Special Olympics. He’s a whole different person.”
Today, he speaks to groups, and recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to discuss Project Unify, which pairs people with disabilities with people who don’t have one.
Alex is paired with his brother Anthony, 10, in bocce ball.
Besides the social aspects, Special Olympics has also benefited Alex with agility, coordination, endurance and stamina, his mother said.
“You wouldn’t have thought at age 10, going on 11, that we would be here. It’s been a whirlwind,” Crystalyn said.
To learn more about Special Olympics Illinois, volunteering or providing financial support to help make Special Olympics programs possible, call 800-394-0562 or visit the website at soill.org.