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‘Hug Collector’ finds joy in Special Olympics

Maggie (Dittburner) Rutenbeck

Bruce Yentes

The Pantagraph, Bloomington, Ill.

NORMAL (Ill.) — Maggie (Dittburner) Rutenbeck calls herself a hug collector.

“I’m to the point where I say I collect hugs, because I don’t have to dust them,” she said.

Hugs, smiles and the simple joy of competition were in abundance Friday as the Special Olympics Illinois Summer Games got underway throughout Bloomington-Normal.

The annual event, which this year has attracted more than 4,000 athletes, 1,600 coaches, 2,000 volunteers and 3,300 family members, runs through Sunday.

It is one of Rutenbeck’s favorite times of the year.

“This is what I live for,” she said. “This is what fills me and the days with the athletes are the best.”

For Rutenbeck, who is Program Manager at the SOAR agency in Bloomington, the hug-filled days with the athletes began in Wisconsin.

“I actually was a volunteer more than 30 years ago when I was in college,” she said. “I got more hugs and kisses than I got in my whole dating career up to that point and I fell in love with it.”

In a span of more than three decades, she has coached in the Special Olympics World Games six times.

“I’ve been very fortunate with Special Olympics to see the world,” she said. “I’ve gotten to go to Alaska and snowshoe with my Special Olympics athletes. I’ve gone to China twice, I’ve been to Japan and I just got back from Austria last year as the snowshoe coach for Team USA.

“It’s never anything I would have expected with regard to my efforts with Special Olympics.”

A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Superior with master’s degrees from UWS and Minnesota-Mankato, Rutenbeck began her career as a women’s college basketball coach at UWS.

“I was a really terrible basketball coach at UW-Superior and then at Clarke College in Dubuque (Iowa),” she said. “I learned that my killer instinct was gone and that having my income depend on a bunch of 18-to-22 year olds was not my forte. I was more interested in their education than in my win-loss record. Then I tripped into Special Olympics.”

Tripping into it actually was more like falling head-over-heels in love with it.

“When I see how hard these athletes work with less God-given ability, I feel like I fulfill my mission,” she said. “The winning and losing becomes secondary to the effort and the expression of ability in eliminating the disability part of it.

“Whenever our Special Olympics athletes show that, whatever the level they do it at, that’s a win. And they never would have had that opportunity if it wasn’t for Special Olympics.”

Rutenbeck points out that Special Olympics is only 50 years old.

“It hasn’t been that long since these folks were not getting out and being challenged to do what their abilities were,” she said. “They were left on the side of the road.”

Next up for Rutenbeck is a trip to the USA Games in Seattle in two weeks. She’ll coach the bowling team. Richard Garmon from SOAR is among the bowlers participating.

Tennis athlete Carrie Johnson and her unified partner, Sherri Hildebrand, also will make the trip, as will tennis coach Nicole Kohler and swim coach Miranda Henson.

The next World Games will be in Dubai in 2019. Rutenbeck has thoroughly enjoyed her past trips overseas.

“It’s not just about the competition,” she said. “It’s the cultural exchange and also for the world to see not only where we are, but that we all have value and ability.”

Rutenbeck said Special Olympics Illinois is funded entirely by charitable contributions and that “the people of Illinois support this program.”

“It’s a charitable organization, not a government funded thing,” she said. “The people of this state support it and the staff of Special Olympics Illinois put on quality events.”

Events are held at the local level throughout the year.

“If they could figure out how to add days to a calendar, they’d do more events,” Rutenbeck said. “It’s an amazing thing.”

She said the charitable support has helped the Special Olympics Illinois Summer Games grow.

“It’s been growing by leaps and bounds,” Rutenbeck said. “I’m so proud to be in Illinois because it’s one of the leading chapters representing what can be done. Special Olympics Illinois Summer Games is one of the largest in the country, which makes it one of the largest in the world.”

Rutenbeck says she’s been involved in Special Olympics for so long, “It’s in my veins.”

“I’m so impressed with these people as athletes, but also as individuals,” she added. “I count them as my dearest friends.”

NOTES: Rutenbeck played basketball and volleyball at UWS from 1976 to 1980. … She is the Yellowjackets’ all-time leading rebounder with 823. She is also 14th all-time in scoring with 933 points and 10th in field goals made (382). … She was the Yellowjackets’ leading scorer and rebounder her freshman and sophomore years and the top rebounder as a junior and senior. … Rutenbeck was inducted into the UWS Hall of Fame in 2001.

— Copyright (c) 2018, The Pantagraph (Bloomington, Ill.)/Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.