When 12-year-old Aaron Holzmueller watches the state swim meet at Evanston Township High School this weekend, he’ll be dreaming of racing in the event one day himself.
And that’s an incredible thing, says his mom, Birdy Holzmueller.
A seventh-grader at Dr. Bessie Rhodes Magnet School, Aaron has cerebral palsy, and swims and runs triathlons for several local teams. This weekend’s state swim meet is the first time physically and visually impaired athletes, like Aaron, will be able to compete and score points in their own division.
“For him to be on the team and feel on the team and contribute to the team by potentially earning points … that’s an incredible thing,” Holzmueller says.
Aaron will one day have a chance to compete at the state level thanks in part to Mary Kate Callahan, a La Grange resident and Fenwick High School senior who filed a lawsuit this spring against the Illinois High School Sports Association (IHSA), charging the group with violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Until this year, the IHSA technically allowed athletes with physical or visual impairments to participate in state competitions, so long as they met qualifying times. Those times, however, were designed for able-bodied athletes—and few, if any did.
Callahan says she approached the IHSA last fall, asking to participate in the state swim meet in 2011, in a separate division. She has competed in all the regular season high school meets for Fenwick since freshman year, and has been swimming since she was six years old, despite losing the use of her legs to a rare neurological disease.
But when she got no answer to a formal proposal filed with IHSA, Callahan filed a lawsuit along with the attorney general’s office and Equip for Equality, a nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities.
“At a certain point, there was really no other choice. Nothing was moving,” says Callahan.
Although parts of the lawsuit are still pending, the IHSA created a separate division for athletes with disabilities, beginning at the state cross-country meet this fall. Matt Troha, assistant executive director, said the agency formed an ad hoc committee to discuss adding disabled athletes after Callahan approached them last year. New rules were adopted this fall to allow disabled athletes to compete in their own division in cross-country, swimming, track and field and bowling. Whether the IHSA creates disabled divisions in other sports will depend on interest, Troha said.
“It is important to note that our Board of Directors had put the wheels in motion for the creation of these programs prior to any legal proceedings," Troha says. "We are incredibly pleased with the programs that came out of the hard work by our ad hoc committee and the awareness and participation opportunities they will create.”
Athletes with physical and visual disabilities who compete at the state swim meet may enter one of four events based on their times at sectionals: the 50-yard freestyle, 100-yard freestyle, 200-yard freestyle and the 100-yard breaststroke. Mary Kate Callahan qualified for all four.
“A year ago I was at the state championships in the stands, watching my team compete,” Callahan says. “I never thought that next year I’d be there, swimming.”
The victory is bittersweet, however, because it is Callahan’s senior year, and her last chance to compete for Fenwick. But she says the lawsuit is about more than simply herself.
“I really wanted to do this for the kids in the younger grades who would have that opportunity,” says Callahan, who hopes to become a lawyer one day. “It’s going to make history.”
According to Alan Goldstein, an attorney from Equip for Equality who worked on the lawsuit along with two other lawyers at the nonprofit, Illinois may be the only state to offer a separate swimming division for disabled athletes at this time. Based on their research, it appears that Colorado offered a disabled division a few years ago, but there have been no entries in that state recently.
“I think the lawsuit definitely played a role in getting them to include athletes with disabilities,” Goldstein says of the IHSA. Still, he adds, “we think this is a great first step.”
Alyssa Gialamis, a junior at Waubonsie Valley High School in Naperville, is one of the seven local athletes who will be making history this weekend in Evanston. Gialamis, whose hands and legs did not fully develop when she was a baby, uses long leg braces to walk. She learned to swim at age 5, and competed in the Paralympics this summer in London. While that experience was amazing—she got to stay in the Olympic village and swim in the Olympic pool—this weekend will be very special too, Gialamis says.
“I get to represent my school, and they’ve been a really big supporter of me,” she says. “We have a strong team, about eight girls that qualified for state at sectionals. I’m excited to be able to go to state with all those girls.”
Nina Nissly, a senior at Lake Forest High School with cerebral palsy, has participated in regular season high school meets for all four years. Being able to compete in the state meet for the first time is very special, she says—especially given that Aaron Holzmueller and some of the younger athletes she mentors through the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association will be in the stands, watching.
“I hope that inspires them that when they get to high school, if they do swimming, they could hopefully go to state,” she says.
That’s exactly the point, says Goldstein, the attorney with Equip for Equality.
“Students with disabilities have historically been prevented or discouraged from participating in sports,” he says. “We think it’s really important that students with disabilities of all ages, and their parents, know that these opportunities are present.”