Jackie has Apert Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that can lead to cognitive, speech and hearing deficits, along with malformations of the head, face and limbs.
Kathy was also worried that Jackie's physical limitations would get in the way of athletic pursuits. Yet it was exactly those limitations that brought the Wittenburg family to Special Olympics in the first place. "We were concerned that it would be easy for her to become sedentary, and that would not be a healthy choice," says Kathy. Jackie had undergone leg surgery and needed to get, literally, back on her feet. "We thought if we could start her off young then this just would become just a part of her life...and since there is no age limit in Special Olympics, it was a good fit."
At 12 years old, Jackie was a little nervous about meeting new people. Even at church, when she was promoted to a new youth group, she was careful to wear gloves and a hat the first day. But her first day at Special Olympics turned out to be an encouraging experience. Mom Kathy says the athletes, coaches and volunteers are "a very supportive, encouraging group and she fit in right away." Once Jackie figured out how the competitions worked, that's when she really started having fun.
Almost immediately, Jackie wanted to push her limits. That's not an easy task for Jackie, since her feet are fused together; she is also missing a big toe. But to everyone's surprise, track turned out to be Jackie's favorite event. Her mother says, "I am shocked she can perform as well as she does! We NEVER tell her she can't do anything. As far as I'm concerned, she's exceeded the goals we've set so far."
Kathy now knows she shouldn't have worried about her daughter's self-esteem in the face of sports competition. After winning her first medal, Jackie was just beaming. "For the first time in her life, my daughter told me she was proud of herself."
Now 15 years old, Jackie participates in swimming and bocce, in addition to track and field. She practices twice a week – and has done so well she was tapped as an alternate to the 2011 World Summer Games in Athens – quite an honor for an athlete her age. To qualify, she had to place well enough in each event, participate in regional and state meets and display good sportsmanship at all times.
Jackie is already looking ahead to her next round of competition – and perhaps even the 2013 World Winter Games. She's also working on improving in her newest sport: equestrian. Her mom says Jackie's found a real home at Special Olympics. With the help of her coaches, she will continue working hard to reach her goals in sports and beyond.