Bloomington native Amanda Rickenberg has seen daily struggles grow into months and years. She has watched someone she loves kick and fight and flail to find his way, worried he may not get there.

She has seen him light up when he arrived.

For Jacob Cross, Rickenberg’s younger brother, the destination was the far end of a swimming pool. It is something different for each of the 4,000 competitors at this weekend’s Special Olympics Illinois Summer Games.

Rickenberg understands the journey. She was a big sister long before making Special Olympics her passion, special education her life’s work.

Jacob Cross is 23 now, competing in swimming this weekend for Tri-Valley Special Olympics. Rickenberg is at the Summer Games as well, coaching 11 Special Olympians from the Morton school district in a program she initiated.

She looks in their eyes and sees hope, victory. Her brother gave her that.

“I was inspired by him. It took him so long to learn to swim,” Rickenberg said. “We’re talking six, seven years before he really became someone who could move up and down the water efficiently.

“That’s compared to another child who might learn it in a couple of rounds of swim lessons. Watching him triumph through that …”

It was better than any victory Rickenberg experienced while competing in track, cross country and basketball at Bloomington High School.

She was Amanda Cross back then, graduating in 2003 with a clear sense of what she wanted to do. Her brother gave her that, too.

Rickenberg enrolled at Illinois State University and earned her special education degree in December 2007. Throughout college, she worked and coached for Bloomington-based Special Opportunities Available in Recreation (SOAR), coaching her brother’s team for two years.

“Awesome,” she called it.

Not long after being hired as a special education teacher at Morton, Rickenberg and colleague Erin Chan proposed starting a Special Olympics program in the district.

It began in spring 2009.

“I was inspired to take something that I really believed in to some kids who didn’t have that programming yet,” Rickenberg said. “I thought it was cool to give kids a link directly to their school district.”

Applaud her if you’d like. She prefers to cheer on her athletes and, as passionately as ever, her brother.

Jacob Cross has Klinefelter syndrome, a chromosomal disorder. His twin, Brian, who lives in Dubuque, Iowa, was not afflicted.

Yet, Special Olympics create “a whole family experience,” Rickenberg said. Moms, dads, brothers, sisters, grandmas and grandpas become emotionally invested.

“I can say that as a sibling of a Special Olympics athlete and from what I’ve experienced as a coach,” Rickenberg said. “Parents and siblings take a lot of pride in the accomplishments of the athletes.”

There have been countless examples in Bloomington-Normal the past two days. Likely, more will come this morning before the Summer Games conclude at noon.

Each “triumph” warms the heart, whether you witness it for the first time or, like Rickenberg, over a lifetime.

“It’s neat to see what it means to the athletes and their families,” she said. “I still get goose bumps when an athlete recites the oath and the cauldron is lit (at the Opening Ceremonies).

“It’s one of my favorite weekends.”

Her brother’s too.


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