Five years ago, when Michael Ronan worked on helping Seattle get the bid to host the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games, he had no idea that his then-toddler daughter would become one of the Games’ biggest stories.
But indeed she has. Eight-year-old Frannie Ronan from Kirkland will be competing in Level 1 gymnastics and will be the youngest competitor in the Games.
That fact has led to instant celebrity for Ronan, who has found herself on TV, the radio and now in the newspaper.
Two weeks ago, at a special event in her honor at the Xfinity store in South Lake Union, she was not only greeted by a crowd of well-wishers but a life-size cutout of herself (“two Frannies,” she said), which she posed next to for photos.
And this is no reluctant star. Frannie, who has Down syndrome, is loving every minute of it.
“I love being on TV because I can show my muscles,” she said, flexing her biceps, and after finishing a television appearance she enjoys going home and watching herself.
And all of the attention is because of Special Olympics.
“I love Special Olympics because it has been a part of all my life,” she said. “It makes me feel strong, and I make a lot of friends and learn different sports.”
Frannie will be competing on the balance beam, floor, vault and bars. The bars are her favorite, because she loves to swing. And she loves gymnastics in general, in part because “it gives me big muscles.”
Frannie made it to the USA Games thanks to a little bit of luck and a change in the rules.
She earned a silver medal in the Washington Games, with only gold-medal winners advancing. But when the gold-medal winner elected to compete at the USA Games in tennis instead, Frannie’s name was selected in a random draw among a few silver medalists.
Although the minimum age to compete was 12, she and a few other younger competitors were allowed in because they met every other qualification.
Frannie found out that she was going to the Special Olympics during a special assembly in January at her school, St. Madeleine Sophie in Bellevue. In addition to her schoolmates, there were Sea Gals and law-enforcement officers on hand to congratulate her.
“That was super exciting,” said Frannie. Many of her classmates will watch her compete.
For her parents, the significant time commitment getting Frannie to her practices and public appearances is a small price next to the positive impact they can see Special Olympics has.
“She loves it so much,” said her mom, Becky.
Said Michael, who has been on the board of Special Olympics Washington for nearly seven years and the board chair for two: “She not only has a chance to compete in a sport, but compete as a team, and not too long ago, those were opportunities that weren’t afforded. Any parent wants their kids to be involved and exposed to as many things as possible. But kids with different abilities don’t always get that chance, and Special Olympics provides that.”
It is why Michael got involved with Special Olympics long before Frannie was even thinking about competing. Becky is vice president of the board of directors of the Down Syndrome Community of Puget Sound.
“When people talk about the time, and the burden of it, we don’t think of it that way,” Michael said. “We see it as an essential part of parenting. We view this as essential time. We will make time for this. It’s probably one of the most critical investments of time that I can make.”
Added Becky: “And we are passionate about it, too.”
Frannie is passionate about gymnastics and is working hard on new skills for the Games. She said, “I feel happy and it’s kind of cool” when she conquers something she’s been trying to learn.
Frannie began playing the piano last summer and performed her first recital in April. She loves musical theater (her favorites are “Annie” and “The Sound of Music”) and learning some of those songs on the piano.
“Sports pushed her to try new things and to keep practicing and try to excel in other things,” Michael said. “And I think it also translates to her schoolwork.”
Frannie now is in class all day without the use of an aide, and she is very self-motivated and intent on doing things herself. I think Special Olympics has been a big part of that.”
Special Olympics has given Frannie the chance to speak in front of groups and the cameras, and she said she doesn’t get nervous. Her parents like that it’s something she can be involved with her whole life, wherever she goes. The oldest competitor at the Games is 74.
“This is a thread that will go through her entire life, and that type of consistency is important for her, and it’s comforting to us,” Michael said.
Michael and Becky Ronan said Special Olympics is not just about sports, it’s a movement, promoting inclusion at school and business and providing health programs that have helped millions.
Michael has seen great progress since he joined the board of Special Olympics Washington. He believes Frannie has a bright future.
“We have no limitations on what we think this kid can do,” he said. “That’s exciting for us.”
Frannie, however, is focused on the present and trying to get a gold medal. She knows why there is so much focus on her.
“I know I am the youngest, so I am kind of smart,” she said.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.