NORMAL — Watch Nathan and Hanna Simmons face off in one-on-one soccer drills, and you'll quickly recognize their competitive nature.
Then watch those same drills dissolve into a playful game of push-and-shove, and it's easy to see that the brother and sister are like any other teenage siblings.
The only difference is Nathan, a 15-year-old sophomore-to-be at Normal West High School, suffers from mild autism.
Don't be fooled though – Nathan isn't different. If anything, he's determined.
Nathan and his sister Hanna, a 13-year-old upcoming eighth-grader at Parkside Junior High, are both athletes and activists for Special Olympics Project Unify. Through Project Unify, the Normal residents organize activities and educate others in an effort to thin the line between people with disabilities and those without.
Through hard work, the pair, along with eight other in-state youth athletes, have earned their way onto the Illinois soccer squad, which on Saturday travels to New Jersey for the week-long Special Olympics USA Games.
"I'm really excited, I think it's going to be a great experience," Nathan said. "I think it'll be great to be in that environment and meet a bunch of new people. It should be a lot of fun."
Nathan has remained humble despite being on the winning side of a six-year battle with autism. The teen was born with cataracts, an eye disease that typically affects the elderly. Vision problems hindered his depth perception, which ultimately limited his abilities in mainstream sports competing with non-disabled athletes.
Two years ago, the disease claimed the vision in his right eye. Today, Nathan wears contact lenses and glasses at the same time to boost his sight.
He continues to push forward and play the game he loves.
"It's hard, it gets frustrating, but I don't let it keep me from soccer," Nathan said.
"We have the same passion for the game," Hanna Simmons added of her brother's resiliency. "He's had some issues, but he just keeps going.
"When he was younger, I know it was tough for him playing soccer because he had eye problems, and he couldn't always see the whole field. Sometimes he wouldn't even get the ball from his teammates."
To prevent those types of shortcomings, the Special Olympics provides teams with unified partners, which is where Hanna, serving as a partner for fellow Parkside student Mackenzie Carlson, and Normal West sophomore Becca Wilson, Nathan's partner, step in.
They are two of five unified partners on the team, serving as both athletes and assistants to their disabled counterparts.
And having witnessed first-hand the struggles those with disabilities face, Hanna is glad the spotlight will be on the real stars.
“As a unified partner, we’re just on the field to set up the other players for goals and plays,” she said. “They work so hard, so we’re just out there to help.”
Helping seems to be a theme for the Simmons family. Last fall, Nathan and Hanna's mother, Sondra Simmons, helped several disabled students looking for athletic opportunities earn a grant through the Special Olympics to bring a Project Unify club soccer team to Normal West.
Sondra, a physical education teacher at West, coaches the team and is on the Illinois Special Olympics Committee. She's quick to point out the importance of Project Unify.
"The whole idea is to bring kids from both sides together," Sondra said. "The kids who have disabilities, they really aren't any different than any other kid. They may have some physical setbacks, but they're all just as competitive and work just as hard."
Hanna and Mackenzie, along with Nathan and Becca, tried out for the Illinois soccer roster in October 2013 in front of Special Olympics officials at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, home of Major League Soccer's Chicago Fire. Based not only on their soccer abilities, but also their skills in areas such as teamwork and communication, the four were selected.
"To be able to go with Hanna and Becca and Mackenzie, that's pretty cool because we've all been playing soccer together for a while now," Nathan said. "We get to go out there and play and learn and help others, and be a part of something pretty awesome. I'm looking forward to that."
Also making the trip from the Pantagraph area are Taylor Reidel of Normal, competing in athletics; athlete Adam Lopez and unified partner Adam Shelton, both of Pontiac, in soccer; and Miranda Henson of Bloomington, head aquatics coach.