Investing in Inspirational People

The Apex Community Grant Program supports the Special Olympics in rural Illinois.

Rachel Zakutansky was just a baby when she had her first seizure. In the span of a heart-wrenching minute, the Zakutanskys’ lives were forever changed.

Rachel, a bright-eyed, inquisitive baby, was diagnosed with epilepsy. Suddenly, the childhood her parents envisioned—stuffed-animal tea parties and backyard birthday celebrations—dissolved in the face of a new reality: the simple joys that most families take for granted would be secondary to medical progress and hope for a healthy and stable future.

For years, Rachel’s life was a cycle of school, doctors’ visits, physical therapy, and more school, doctors’ visits, and physical therapy. Like many kids in her hometown, Rachel signed up for T-ball, but she was more interested in tying and untying her glove out in right field than in playing.

Knowing she wanted to become an athlete, Rachel next tried soccer. But on a crowded team, she never saw the field, and her hope simply turned to frustration.

The cycle continued.

Finding Rachel’s Path to Victory

At age fifteen, inside a crowded track-and-field stadium, Rachel stood nervously at the starting line of her very first Special Olympics race: the 200-yard dash.

“My husband and I were cheering for her, screaming our guts out, and suddenly she took the lead. And then she won,” said Sue Zukatansky, Rachel’s mother. “She stood on the field completely confident as everybody congratulated her. She soaked it all up. She wasn’t worried about having a seizure. She wasn’t worried about whether she took her medicine that morning. She wasn’t worried about anything. And in that moment, we weren’t either.”

Rachel had finally found her fit: the Special Olympics.

Since that single carefree moment, Rachel’s life has expanded exponentially beyond the school-doctor-therapy cycle. More than 15 years after that first race, Rachel still runs track and field and now plays volleyball, softball, and basketball—her favorite sport.

“She’s in Special Olympics because she has a disability. But when she competes in Special Olympics, it’s gone,” said Sue.

“It’s fun to be an athlete because you get to play. You get to have your own friends on your team and you get to practice and win together,” said Rachel. “The more you practice, the more you play, the more you win.”

woman seated at volleyball practice
Rachel Zakutansky at volleyball practice. In the words of her mother, Sue, “Rachel is an athlete, a global messenger, and a health messenger because of the Special Olympics.”

“You Should Never Quit and Never Give Up”

Today, shining metallic trophies sit atop every surface of Rachel’s bedroom. Brightly colored medals hang from her bedposts, and a custom “Rachel” basketball sign adorns her wall. Photos from competitions sit next to baseball bobbleheads, and jerseys every color of the rainbow fill her closet. Her role as an athlete has filled not only her room, but also her life. Rachel has new responsibilities—like coordinating rides to and from practice and making sure her uniform is ready—and new achievements, like completing Special Olympics leadership courses.

“Now when she encounters a challenge, she can rely on the memories and feelings that she had competing in Special Olympics. It may have taken her years to get to this point, but she can see what she’s accomplished,” said Sue. “Rachel is an athlete, a global messenger, and a health messenger because of the Special Olympics.”

After years of the highs and lows that every athlete experiences, Rachel has a powerful message to share—not just for her teammates or for other athletes, but for everyone.

“You should never quit and never give up. You should always keep trying. Always keep playing and always keep practicing.”

These words she lives by—racing for first place in track and field, practicing again and again her three-pointer on the basketball court, and persevering through a life —well-lived—with epilepsy.

Authors

Jeff Ocampo

Multimedia Production Specialist

Jeff brings stories of Apex’s innovative projects, sustainable solutions, and people to life through photography and video. When he’s not working, he enjoys spending quality time with his wife and daughter, Penelope.

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