Brashinger: Frankfort Special Olympian seeks medal in pentathlon
By Ginger Brashinger Citizen Journalistemail@example.com May 16, 2014 3:22PM
Russ (left) and Julie (right) Leehaug flank Allie Leehaug, 26, as she strikes the pose she plans to use if she medals at the 2014 Special Olympics USA in June. Her parents plan to accompany her to Princetion, N.J. for the games. | Ginger Brashinger~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 23, 2014 10:57AM
Allison “Allie” Leehaug, 26, possesses two important characteristics that an athlete needs for success — skill and confidence.
The Frankfort resident is a good bet to come home in June from the 2014 Special Olympics USA games with a medal, according to her Lincolnway Special Recreation Association coach Ralph Krauss.
Allie is one of more than 3,500 Special Olympic athletes from all over the United States, and one of 54 Team Illinois members, who will compete in the Special Olympics in June in Princeton, New Jersey in 16 sports.
Krauss said he likes Allie’s chances as a pentathlon competitor, partly because she has come a long way in six years. Allie, who has autism, has a work ethic that has made a difference, he said.
“She’s been a diligent worker for many a year,” Krauss said. “Her points have gone up from 900 a couple of years ago to over 2,000 points in the event.”
Krauss said the high jump is “critical” for a pentathlon athlete, and Allie “is one of the better girl high jumpers in the state.” The other pentathlon events are the shot put, long jump and 100 and 400 meter races.
By her estimation, Allie said the high jump is her strongest event and the shot put is her weakest, but she will be “trying to do her best” in the pentathlon, a competition that she gradually took to over time and with hard work.
“It took me a couple of years or so. Then it got to me,” she said. “Yeah, I can do this. I felt comfortable. I never looked back. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Success has not always been a part of Allie’s life. Her parents, Julie and Russ, said they had a difficult time finding a successful education experience for their daughter, whose development they realized was somehow different than what they had experienced with their first daughter, Kim.
“We knew when she was two that there was something,” Julie said.
Allie was finally diagnosed at age nine after a “brave young teacher” gave them a booklet about their rights as parents of a child with a developmental disability, and the Leehaugs were told that Allie’s autism would require strong structure in her life, Russ said.
Sports have provided much of that structure, through the Lincolnway Special Recreation Association.
“It keeps her very active,” Julie said. “It’s something that she’s good at and likes to do.”
The Leehaugs feel Allie’s confidence level has risen over the years as a result of playing sports and building friendships with other young people with disabilities, especially since joining the Lincolnway association eight years ago.
Two years into the LWSRA program, Krauss, who was Allie’s basketball coach, suggested that she try competing in the in the pentathlon. Allie embraced the event’s competition and worked hard to become a Special Olympian.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “How many times do you get to do this type of thing?”
She said her goal is to make a good showing at the national competition, mostly to “give back” to her coaches, especially Tami Pareti, the LWSRA recreation specialist who chose Allie to compete with Team Illinois.
Allie has high praise for all her coaches, including Krauss and the other Team Illinois coaches — Brad Bradley, Karlene Kendall, Emer Flanagan and Tom Krauss, Ralph’s son.
“If I had to say one thing about my coaches and the rec association, it’s that they understand my disability, and if it wasn’t for you guys and this rec association, I wouldn’t even be here,” she said. “Hey, you guys are awesome coaches.”
Allie said she’s definitely going for a medal in the Special Olympics national competition, but if that doesn’t happen, she still has her priorities in place.
“Gold or no gold, the whole thing is (about) having fun and giving back,” she said.