SPORTS: Indiana's finest embark on the trip of a lifetime

October 1, 2007

On Sept. 25, the NCAA's Hall of Champions was a hall filled with champions.

Yes, former Carmel basketball state champion, Purdue bowl champion and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Mark Herrmann was there. So were Justin Snow and a couple of his teammates from the Super Bowl champion Colts.

But the champs on this day were athletes such as Sam McNew from Noblesville, Jessica Crook from Logansport, Mitch Johnson from Muncie, Danielle Burgin from Jeffersonville, and Shane Talbert from Attica. Later, at a dinner compliments of Shula's, they would be joined by teammates Robert and Jason Plante from West Lafayette.

Herrmann and the Colts-Snow, Dante Hughes and Michael Coe-were there to accompany them on a tour through the Hall of Champions, where they might be inspired by all the examples of collegiate greatness contained within the hall.

Truth is, there was more inspiration given than gained.

These were-are-the best of Indiana's best Special Olympians. And this was their time to be treated and given a big sendoff.

Because on the next day, they would depart Indianapolis International for a stopover in Los Angeles on the way to the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai, China.

The athletes weren't the only ones in the Hoosier delegation. Cindi Hart and her husband, Ken, will serve as the head and assistant coaches, respectively, of the U.S. cycling team. If Cindi Hart's name isn't familiar-and it may be, because in June Indiana Sports Corp. and Indiana Black Expo honored her with the Rev. Charles Williams Award for service to youth-then her face might be.

As a breast cancer survivor, she was the subject of an inspirational public service message that aired locally this past spring.

"Life is a gift," she said, looking at the Special Olympians a few steps away. "What you decide to do with that gift is up to you. You can choose to be sad or mad at whatever obstacles you encounter, or you can choose to make a difference in your life and in the lives of others. And that's where the rewards are."

Jessica Crook and her family never saw obstacles, only opportunities. She's been a Special Olympian for eight years. She won gold medals in last year's National Games in Ames, Iowa.

She also is a young lady with a thousandwatt smile and a personality that would soften the hardest of hearts. A year ago, she embarked on the goal of becoming a Special Olympics Global Messenger. Out of 2.5 million athletes, just 12 are chosen every two years. Jessica is one of those 12 international spokespersons.

And now she's off to China.

"I'm nervous and I'm ready and all of the above," she said, grinning.

McNew's the champion power-lifter from Noblesville. He always greets me with, "Hey, old man!" Sam's waved the green flag to start practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and he's been backstage hangin' with music star Carrie Underwood.

Now he's China-bound, mainly because neither he nor anyone in his family placed limits on where his ability could take him.

Shane Talbert is a sprinter from Attica. I first saw him perform in the 2006 National Games. The youngster is a blur in spikes. Danielle Burgen is quite the runner, too, good enough to be going to China. Guess I should mention here she's just 12 years old. Mitch Johnson, the swimmer, has shoulders as wide as a doorway. He swam for the Muncie Central Bearcats. Now he's butterflying in China. The Plantes are a "unified" golf team. Talk about father-son bonding.

Dave Breen is from the Special Olympics Indiana staff, but in Shanghai, he's one of four persons serving as head of the U.S. delegation. It was a role he was supposed to perform two years ago in the Winter Games at Nagano, Japan, but his wife, Lori, succumbed to cancer. The folks at the national office made certain that this time there would be a seat on the Orient Express for Breen.

These Indiana champions are headed to an experience that not many years ago no one would have considered possible.

"It's definitely the experience of a lifetime for them," said Cindi Hart. "They are going to meet people from all over the world with whom they will have so much in common. We will see leaders emerge. They will find encouragement. They will find strengths they never knew they had. When they come back, they will be more confident than ever, forever changed."

Couldn't have said it better myself. So I won't try.

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor to bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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