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A Star That Keeps Getting Brighter

By Chad VanderPoel

She has been dreaming of this moment her whole life. She looks down at her path ahead.  It’s littered with famous names ranging from Cèline Dion to Mickey Mouse to Walter Matthau to Sandra Bullock. Each star signifying each individual’s lifetime accomplishments. She can sense the aura of the many great ones that have performed on the big screen or the big stage. She looks up to them, she studies them, she wants to be like them. She dreams of being on her own star.

Chana Sandoval has made it to the place she has never been, Hollywood. For years she has envisioned herself on stage dancing and singing to her favorite song, “My Heart Will Go On.” Here she is where so many other stars had their dreams filled. It’s her moment. She is ready for the bright lights of her own star to form. If her beginning says anything, it’s that there is no limit for Chana. She has made it this far.

A smiling Chana Sandoval.

Ok, back up.  This moment hasn’t actually occurred, yet.  Everyone has that big vision in their head of where they would like to go or what they want to do.  They have goals and they have journeys to reach them.  They have dreams.  Well, this is one of Chana’s dreams and she has defied expectations to this point in time.

Chana Sandoval ready to bat in a softball game.Chana was born in Japan before spending most of her life in Sioux Falls.  Her father was serving in the Navy at the time.  Her family didn’t truly know what she was capable of during her younger years.  Truth be told, she didn’t know either.  She was a very shy girl, clinging to her mom’s hip wherever she went.  She didn’t know how to do things on her own.  Then at age 12 it all changed.

During her 6th grade year her mom found an opportunity that would help her grow into what no one knew was possible.  She became involved with Special Olympics.  Just like anything she did before that was new, she was hesitant and apprehensive to try.  With the comfort of her mom, she took that “step to the edge of the nest” and saw a new world, one with others trying to find their way as well. Quickly she met new friends.  There were local friends like Erin and Emily Gustaf and Sarah Faue.  Eventually, the world got bigger as she traveled to events in other communities.  She’d gain friends like Dawn Ruhlman, Ashley Clark, and Robert Catherman from other towns.  

Chana Sandoval smiling and posing with two teammates.Little by little, the attachment from her shyness grew less and less.  She learned about her ability to be independent.  Soon she was accomplishing feats her mom Barb Sandoval will say, “I never thought it was even a thought.  She started doing things I didn’t know she could do.”

Chana’s Special Olympics career took off in a blur and it hasn’t slowed down to this day.  She started competing in anything and everything from basketball to soccer to swimming to softball to gymnastics to skiing and most recently bocce.  Bocce is the one she claims to like competing in the most because it’s new, she has a teammate, and she looks forward to its future.

Softball teammates hugging on the field.However, while bocce may have the recency effect playing on her, the sport that has taken her to the biggest heights has been track and field, particularly the pentathlon event.  She has competed on the largest Special Olympics stages, whether it be USA Games in Nebraska, Iowa, or New Jersey or World Games in Ireland.  Ireland is the one that stands out the most because it was where she turned a struggle into a triumph.

Not yet 20 years old at the time, she was still learning how to get better at the pentathlon.  The pentathlon is made up of five disciplines: the high jump, long jump, 100 meter dash, 400 meter dash, and the shot put.  There was one discipline that continued to plague her, the high jump.  It was her biggest struggle.  She worked constantly to improve her jumping leading up to the 2003 World Games.  She found her place on the podium to earn her 3rd place medal at the Games and it was because of the weakness she prevailed over in the high jump.  It was what made it all possible.  She stepped up and made the goal of reaching the podium a possibility and that possibility and an achievement.

Chana Sandoval hugging her mom

Coming from someone who was timid, Chana will be the first to point out who her favorite supporters are.  The circle of friends she has gained around her throughout her career are those who encourage her as well as her family.  She’ll give credit to the great coaches who helped her at those high levels, one of her favorites being Brian Jacobsen and how he helped her improve.  Then it will all go back to her biggest supporter from day one, the one who pushed her to let go a little more and then a little more and then even more, her mom.  “She just helps so much,” Chana says referring to her mom.

Mom quickly turns it around, “Chana has worked hard to get better.  All of the skill building has done endless things for her.  She is more independent and she is more confident.”  To this day Chana’s favorite part about competing is having her mom watch, sometimes to the point of frustration if mom is attending to the event and misses something.  

Chana has found other things through Special Olympics she loves like going to many places, being around friends, and meeting new people.  Who would have thought that the shy 12 year old girl would become the woman who loves to meet new people?  Now it doesn’t take long and she can be caught smiling and laughing, even with those she first met.  Her roommate and lifelong Special Olympic friend will point out right away how funny Chana is.  Her personality continues to show more and more.

A smiling Chana Sandoval with arms crossed.

The confidence shows outside the competition arena as well, whether it be in a competitive game of UNO or the many speaking engagements she has done.  Many thought it would be too hard for her.  She’s even flashed that Hollywood smile in TV interviews.  She’s also not afraid to tell about her crush when asked about her favorite TV show.  She loves NCIS but she loves Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) even more (insert googly eyes emoticon).  “He’s hot,” she’ll assuredly say.

Her favorites don’t end with Tony.  She loves to collect books, particularly romance ones.  She also loves cats and dogs.  She will eat cheese pizza anytime.  She’ll play favorites when it comes to football and by favorites that means rooting for the Packers, Cowboys, Broncos, Patriots, and Panthers.  She is a fan of the movie the Hunger Games and a repeat fan of Dennis the Menace.  When it comes to TV and movies her family will tell you it is impossible to watch with her because she is always laughing or repeating lines.  
Chana has a lot of favorites and interests that bring out who she is.  One of her passions is photography.  Give her a camera and she finds another level of confidence.  Taking pictures allows her to show her goofy side but also the things she cares about.  She knows how to fill a memory card real quick.  

The transformation through it all is what stands out for Chana and what Special Olympics has done for her.  She is now able to showcase her talents to friends, family, and many others.  She has grown to the point where she has become very good at helping younger athletes and letting them find their niche to become who they can be.  “I want to be a good sport and set an example.  I want to help people when they need help,” she says.

Today, Chana finds pride in what she has become.  It could be the healthy lifestyle she leads by exercising every morning.  It could be living independently with her best friend.  It could be loving her job at the mall.  She was given the opportunity to grow.  The young girl has become a leader amongst her peers, something that seemed far fetched many years ago.  It may have been like a dream but dreams can become reality.  While she hasn’t became the star in Hollywood yet, she has formed her own star, one those around her will say is bright.

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