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Bond between Mascoutah coach and Marissa player leads them to Special Olympics World Summer Games

From left to right: Jennifer Hitt; Rich Crothers; Anthony Cahoon; Jeffrey Price
From left to right: Jennifer Hitt; Rich Crothers; Anthony Cahoon; Jeffrey Price Provided photo

Richard Crothers bargained with God for his wife’s good health, promising his service to a greater cause in exchange for her recovery.

That’s how he, in 1987, got involved with the Special Olympics and how, a few years later, he got involved with Anthony Cahoon.

The two are in Los Angeles for the International Special Olympics World Summer Games, Crothers as a coach with the U.S. soccer team and Cahoon as a player.

“Anthony is like one of my own kids; I’ve watched him grow up,” said Crothers, of Mascoutah. “That means a whole lot to me because I’ve watched him grow from a little boy to a 26-year-old. It’s been the last 15 years of him playing soccer and he’s done some amazing things when it comes to soccer. At one time, he was good enough to probably play college soccer.”

Cahoon, participating in his first World Games, said he also enjoys the tight bond he’s forged with his coach.

“He’s like a dad to me,” said Cahoon, a resident of Marissa. “He’s helped me out so many times. I’ve called him out of the blue, and he always talks to me. I’ve been to his house; we work on the soccer team together. He’s taken me to professional soccer games. He always lets me tag along with him.”

Back in 1968, the inaugural International Special Olympics Summer Games were held in Chicago. This year, in Los Angeles, the World Games will have a little Illinois flair to it, with four metro-east locals participating.

In addition to Cahoon and Crothers, O’Fallon acquatics coach Jeff Price and Edwardsville gymnastics coach Jennifer Hitt also has made the trip. The festivities begin July 25 with games lasting through Aug. 2.

For Cahoon, the lone athlete in the bunch, the Special Olympics is a place to prove his doubters wrong.

“To be able to play a sport, to actually be able to be a part of something, a lot people didn’t give me the opportunity to see that I am as good as anyone else,” Cahoon said. “I’ve had to work hard to have this ability to play. That’s why I love soccer.”

Crothers’ journey with the Special Olympics, meanwhile, started almost 30 years ago.

“I’ve been involved with Special Olympics since 1987,” he said. “We were in Germany. My wife had a procedure, and I sat in the chapel of the military hospital and asked God if he needs it, I’d find a way to help out. About a week later, there was an opportunity to volunteer for the Special Olympics, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Crothers has played a huge part Special Olympic soccer in the area for two decades now, and at one point, boasted the only team in the metro east.

“I’ve been a competitive coach for 20 years,” Crothers said. “I’ve worked with different high schools and colleges. The program I have in Belleville is the only Special Olympics soccer program in southern Illinois, so kids from all over to play.”

Crothers said this year has been especially important for him because of the Summer Games. The local soccer players essentially have been working towards competing in Los Angeles all year.

“Basically now we have two seasons,” Crothers said. “We a traditional season that goes from February to June and that accumulates to the Summer Games. This last year, with this last month, three teams from this area went to state. All three made it to the championship games, but two of them lost. We just started unified soccer; it’s a partnership where they will have a partner plus a Special Olympics athlete on a team. We’ll play a couple of games like that in September.”

Getting to the Special Olympics has not only a long wait for the athletes, but for coaches like Crothers as well.

“The process started about a year ago,” Crothers said. “What happens is the athletes or the coaches put in their nominees for the team. Then, last June I went to the mini-camp to be evaluated. Eleven players were selected. Then in October last year, we had a mini-camp in Indianapolis and were there for two days. I developed all their training schedules for at home there. In March, we a tournament in Belleville called Clash of the Borders. The home team came down and played against college teams.”

Crothers said having Cahoon on his team his year has been an added bonus for him, as he has watched him play soccer for most of Cahoon’s life.

While some might get lost in the moment and worry about medals and placing, Cahoon said the thing he is most looking forward to is the atmosphere surrounding the World Games.

“I’m just going to enjoy every bit of it,” Cahoon said. “I don’t want to rush it so fast that I think over it. I just want to slow down and enjoy the experience. The experience of California, the experience of Los Angeles, I want to take in all of it. On the train to Chicago, I was even enjoying this right now.”

Like his player, Crothers said the Special Olympics have always been outstanding to him and allow him to be surrounded by good people giving it their all.

“One of the biggest things I get out of it is, I coach competitive soccer and the kids just want to play,” Crothers said. “They play hard; they want to play well. They want to be treated the same as any other athlete.”

To learn how you can get involved or to learn more about the Special Olympics, go to la2015.org/about-games/special-programs.

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