Special Olympics Gave Jenny Hill More than Just the Gold



2007 - Jenny Hill with Her Two Medals  

This heart-touching story is about a girl who was born prematurely and later diagnosed with autism and other developmental delays. Her challenges through school were beyond imaginable, but that didn’t stop her from experiencing something she calls “amazing!” Only few people in this world will ever experience what she did.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver said it the best back in the 1960s. She started looking at people with disabilities, but it wasn’t for “what they couldn’t do” – it was for “what they could do”. She made the first Special Olympic Games happen in 1968.

Jenny Hill is the daughter of David and Sue. She has an older brother, Chris, who is married to Jenny (same name), they have two kids. Jenny was born in 1986, in Newport, Oregon, right next to the ocean. The family made their way to Brownsville, Turner, and then in 2010 ended up in Salem, Oregon, where they now live on the south side.

Before Jenny was born, Sue went through a very difficult pregnancy. She returned to OHSU eleven times for ultrasounds. Jenny was born premature. As an infant she met most of the developmental milestones except for the language part.

Her parents noticed that she would not spit up like a normal baby, which is through the mouth. She would spit up through her nose – she had to be monitored very carefully everyday.

Jenny did not talk for a very long time. At three years old she noticed that her brother had an accident and injured himself.

“What did you do!” Jenny spoke for the first time.

Everyone forgot about her big brother being hurt and turned to Jenny, she spoke! It was a joy to hear sounds coming out of her mouth.

During kindergarten, Jenny was diagnosed with autism and mental developmental delays. Later she was also diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (an illness characterized with irregular or no periods) – higher risk for obesity and more.

“Mostly for me, I was in denial – I figured by the time she was fifteen or twenty, no one would know the difference. This was going to be part of life,” David said.

Both parents dealt with a tough situation, when it’s your own child it hits you harder than ever. They were going to love Jenny no matter what – whatever they could do for her they were up to the task.

“I just thought to myself, it is what it is, now we need to start thinking about what we can do to help her,” Sue said.

It was then that Sue and David realized something was in there and the possibilities were limitless of what they could do for her. Sue enrolled in a sign language program to learn and to become an interpreter – she felt this was needed to help Jenny.

Jenny attended grade school in Aumsville, Oregon. During middle school she attended Cascade. Life was challenging for her. It was very difficult for her to be social – interacting with the other kids became a huge obstacle for her. She didn’t know anyone and lunchtimes were lonely.

“Because of her cognation and autism, it affected her a great deal. She wouldn’t wear the same clothes as other kids or talk the same way. I would often go visit during lunch and I would find Jenny sitting by herself at a different table in the cafeteria,” Sue said.

“Facing my autism, my shyness, not knowing anyone – that was tough,” Jenny said.

Jenny met John Hawkins – a boy in grade school that became like a brother to her. She never really talked to him because of her shyness and social challenges.

“I never talked to him the whole time – he was across the hall from me,” Jenny said.

When they were promoted to middle school, John made it a point to give all the girls in class a flower. Jenny was touched deeply when John gave her one too. From middle school through high school, she would receive a flower and a dance … once a year. John always made sure that Jenny had at least one dance every year.

“I was looking for something that Jenny could do to get her more involved. Special Olympics was a program that anyone could do if they had some sort of a mental development delay disability. I started coaching her in swimming and then it led to other sports,” Sue said.

Jenny started getting into many sports in Special Olympics. She started with swimming, then basketball, power lifting, and gymnastics. She would practice with the team once a week. Her main sport event eventually became gymnastics – she had the talent to go a long ways.

“They worked me pretty hard – I learned so much during practices,” Jenny said.

While she continued to improve in all of the sports, the one sport that she really excelled in was gymnastics. The uneven bars, beam, the vault, and the floor exercise seemed to have adapted well with Jenny. She was coached by many people in different events throughout the years. At a level-3 category (top level) she would need a private instructor. She met Sveta from Russia, who became her major coach from the fifth grade to her junior year in high school.

Jenny started competing in Special Olympics at age nine. She found a passion – something she could be involved in – she made a difference and it was starting to be a life-changing experience. Her entire family coached her in one thing or another – they volunteered many times.

In 2003, Jenny had placed high at the state level and advanced to the national games in Ames, Iowa. At this meet she received a gold medal in the floor exercise, a silver medal in the vault, and bronze in the beam and bars.

In June, 2003, Jenny was headed to Dublin, Ireland, to compete in the Special Olympics World Games. There were about 70,000 people attending this major event. Jenny and her parents stayed with a hosting family from Ireland – they were very kind to them. There was an overload of security because of the Iraq war going on at the time – a little nerve-racking.

“It was amazing! The meals were free and so many things were provided for us. I made new friends and it helped me gain a little more confidence in myself,” Jenny said.

Jenny had done very well so far. She had placed fourth in the floor exercise and she received a bronze medal in the bars and beam. She was getting ready to compete in the vault apparatus. During one of her warm-ups, she was running on the runway, stepped on the springboard, and hit the horse awkwardly and she fell hard to the ground. Her mom, Sue, was stressing a bit. There were hundreds of people watching since it was the only apparatus left.

Jenny got up and went over to talk to the coach. It seemed as if she had gathered her composure. The coach said a few words to her and gave her a pat. Jenny’s turn comes up for the real one this time. She salutes and hits the runway – she approaches the springboard and hits the horse perfectly followed by sticking the landing – the crowd went wild as she raised her hands up in the air. She nailed it not only once, but twice. This earned Jenny the gold medal! She also went on to place fourth in the all-around competition.

“At the awards ceremony, she was standing at the top between the silver and bronze medalists. They presented Jenny with flowers and the gold medal. I was so proud of her. When I saw Jenny turn around and toss her flowers to our host family from Ireland … it was a very touching moment,” Sue said.

Jenny’s experience with Special Olympics has given her so much. The hard work she put in and the determination to accomplish what many only wish, has been such a blessing to her.

“Special Olympics have taught me how to lose weight, make friends, and communicate with people. I really want to bring awareness to Special Olympics. I feel blessed that I got to go to Ireland and compete there at no cost. I especially feel blessed to have parents like mine – they have helped me so much,” Jenny said.



Cylvia Hayes, Jenny Hill, and John Kitzhaber

Jenny went on to receive the Governor’s Gold Award for two years - presented by Ted Kulongoski (governor at the time). Jenny presented medals she earned to John Kitzhaber in a different year. Jenny also received the Lou Burge Award at the Oregon Sports Awards and an opportunity to speak live on television – KATU Channel 2.

Although Jenny’s gymnastic career came to an end due to an injury she received while practicing, she learned so much. It’s still a challenge as far as communicating with people – especially in a large group setting, but it’s a lot better than before.

She now enjoys playing a game called bocce, bowling, and horse-riding lessons. Don’t be surprised to see her at the bowling alley.

John Hawkins went on to become the class president and the homecoming king at Cascade High School. Jenny not only got flowers again, but she had the honor of dancing with the homecoming king.

Jenny was involved in FFA during high school and found a love for animals. She now works for Aumsville Animal Clinic. Her employer has been so good to her – she really enjoys working there as a kennel tech plus other minor duties.


2014 - Jenny Hill in Front of her South Salem Home

Jenny, what was your favorite subject in school?


Who is your favorite Olympian athlete?

Carly Patterson – the 2004 all-around champion in gymnastics. I had the honor of performing a routine on the uneven bars at the Rose Garden (now Moda Center). Carly spotted me in front of thousands of people. Afterward she gave me her USA jacket.

What is your favorite movie?

I have a few - “The Ringer” “Notting Hill” and “Terms of Endearment”

What kind of music do you listen to?