Editor’s note: This story also appears in the April edition of Park Cities People.
Despite his autism, Michael Susens thinks of himself as one of the top athletes at Highland Park High School. After all, he participates in bowling, basketball, track and field, and swimming.
Michael is a Special Olympian, a program that has grown by leaps and bounds since it was launched at HP 25 years ago.
In 1989, the school had six athletes participating in just one sport, tennis. This school year, administrators expect 38 athletes to register 82 “participations” across six sports — the four Michael participates in, plus tennis and soccer.
Betty Sue Welch, co-head of the high school’s Special Olympics delegation, said the 38 athletes and 82 participations are both highs for the program. The 82 could probably be surpassed if athletes weren’t forced to choose between track, tennis, and soccer in the spring.
“There are several athletes who would like to do more than one, but it’s a scheduling issue,” Welch said.
Welch said Highland Park will probably add flag football and bocce in “the very near future.” But other aspects have already been added to the program.
Last year, the Special Olympians had their first postseason banquet. This year, Michael’s mother, Beth, lobbied for the program to get a display case, just like all other Scots teams. The program also has its first poster and first bumper stickers.
“Not all parents want their kids to participate in Special Olympics, but our population is growing, and our program will continue to grow,” Beth said. “These kids just want to feel like everyone else.”
Michael got involved with Special Olympics at the minimum age of 8, at the urging of Beth and her husband, Scott.
“I normally don’t want to be athletic, but my parents just want me to get exercise,” he said.
Highland Park’s Special Olympians have played an exhibition at an SMU basketball game for years. But they undoubtedly played in front of their biggest crowd this season, given what a hot ticket Larry Brown’s Mustangs have been.
Still, Michael is relieved to have basketball, which he called his most difficult sport, behind him. He’s already looking forward to track and field.
“Basketball is a little too tricky, in my opinion,” Michael said.
Marley Malenfant contributed to this report.