A tower of strength: Madeleine McNulty’s legacy of joy leaves impression with students

Article and Photo by: Emily Jankauski

Competing for the Mahomet Area Magic, Madeleine McNulty (top left) often enjoyed seeing her teammates win over herself. Her mother, Dawn McNulty said she exhibited a ‘spirit of enthusiasm and positivity.’

Twisting and twirling her way through life’s obstacles, Madeleine McNulty will be honored at this year’s Special Olympics Illinois Region I Mahomet Polar Plunge opening ceremonies, which will take place at noon Saturday at Lake of the Woods.

The Special Olympics Illinois Region I athlete passed away suddenly last year on the very day of the plunge, Feb. 25. She will be represented by her family, including her father, Tom; mother, Dawn; brother, Devin; and sister, Caitlin. The Mahomet-Seymour High School dance team also will be there to honor her memory.

Madeleine McNulty’s career as a Special Olympics athlete began when she moved to Mahomet in 2015 from Paris, France. The McNulty family, though originally from Illinois, moved to Paris given Tom McNulty’s career at the headquarters of an electrical company.

It took no more than a day for Madeleine to feel welcomed by the Mahomet-Seymour community. As Tom arrived at the high school with his daughter, he entered the common area and immediately became struck by the enormity of the situation.

“He took her in and he watched her walk into this big cafeteria, and all of a sudden, he thought, ‘Oh my gosh, my special-needs daughter is walking in here and she doesn’t know anybody,'” Dawn McNulty said. “She walked straight up to a table (of students) and said, ‘Hi, my name is Madeleine,’ and he said that was it. At that moment, he knew she was going to be OK.”

Madeleine McNulty was diagnosed with a rare form of epilepsy, known as PCDH 19, which affects ones genes. Dawn McNulty said her daughter had developmental delays, along with speech and language delays as she got older. Madeleine began having seizures when she was 4 months old.

“They were not controllable,” Dawn McNulty said. “She could have 30 a day for seven days, and as soon as they were over, she was back living fully.”

Though she never complained about the frequent seizures, the Mahomet-Seymour student asked doctors if the seizures would ever cease. In 2010, she had a two-part brain surgery in an attempt to end the seizures, which included removing a portion of her frontal lobe.

“She vomited for 10 days in the hospital,” Dawn McNulty said. “She wanted me to hold her hand the whole 10 days, and she used to say, ‘You’re such a strong mommy,’ and I would say, ‘You’re the strongest girl I know.'”

Exhausting options, Madeline’s seizures unfortunately did not subside after the surgery.

“After she had the brain surgery in 2010, there was an assumption that the seizures would go away. It had gotten much better (with them occurring) every 12 hours when she was older, but she had easily over 25,000 seizures in her life.”

Stephanie Denby, owner of Twist and Shout Dance Studio, 305 W. Oak St., described Madeleine as “a breath of fresh air.” Beginning her love of dance at the age of 3, Madeleine decided to incorporate her passion for dance by assisting younger dancers.

“Madeleine was taking a class in the family and consumer science department at the high school, and they were talking about life and planning for life, and she came home one day and said, ‘I’m going to have to have a job someday, and I need to learn how to have a job, and I want to volunteer at the dance studio,'” Dawn McNulty said.

Soon thereafter, both Dawn and Madeleine McNulty approached Denby about assisting with her pre-ballet class on Tuesday evenings. For the Twist and Shout Dance Studio owner, the idea was a no-brainer.

“It made her day,” Denby said. “She always talked to her mom and her dad about how this was her job. She was always smiling and always happy. She was one of the most loving young ladies I’ve ever met in my life, and caring. She cared about everybody, probably more than herself.”

The opportunity to serve the young ballerinas meant the world to Madeleine. Her mother recalled reading one of her daughter’s journal entries after she assisted with the class and gained a sense of how important the task was to her.

“The one that really touched me the week that she passed was, ‘Today is my job and I would hold the hands of the little dancers and I will tell them what a beautiful job they did. I will be so proud of them on stage at the recital,'” said Dawn McNulty as she recalled Madeleine’s journal entry.

Aside from her involvement with the area dance studio, Madeleine was proud of her sister, Caitlin, and her accomplishments as a dancer for the Mahomet-Seymour dance team.

“Once when I was out doing more dance stuff, she wanted to be a part of it,” Caitlin McNulty said.

Madeleine could often be found in the Mahomet-Seymour stands cheering the girls on as they competed.

“She was definitely the No. 1 fan,” said Margaret Miller, the M-S dance coach. “So much so that if we didn’t place how she thought we should place, I mean she would start sobbing. She seriously was the biggest fan, just so exuberant about everything.”

Recalling their memories of Madeleine, the M-S dance team members shared how supportive Madeleine was of their efforts. The praise quickly turned into the team acknowledging the importance of their efforts as an impact in Madeleine’s life.

“If you weren’t going to do it for yourself, then you did it for Madeleine,” M-S dancer Allissa Lane said.

When Madeleine wasn’t on the dance floor or assisting dancers at Twist and Shout, she was competing in Special Olympics activities, such as bocce ball or bowling with the Mahomet Area Magic Special Olympics team.

Special Olympics Illinois Region I serves 1,487 athletes in its 20-county reach. Events such as this weekend’s Polar Plunge raise funds for the athletes’ venue costs, equipment, meals and much more.

The unique opportunity the athletic competitions provide local individuals with disabilities is unlike any other.

“We provide year-round sports training and competitions that are free for athletes. In providing those trainings and competitions and family-fun events, it really helps transform their lives in the different ways they build friendship, self-esteem,” said Vanessa Duncan, Special Olympics Illinois Region I assistant director. “We’re empowering their lives, we’re giving them hope and we’re giving them ways to meet their goals year after year.”

District competitions provided Madeleine a sense of “pride” and “joy,” according to her mother.

“Madeleine found joy in so many things, but it made her really proud to do it (compete in Special Olympics),” her mom said. “I loved seeing her face with that look. You don’t always see that. With her at Special Olympics, I as a mom, was just so incredibly grateful.”

If Madeleine wasn’t competing in Special Olympics, then she was an active gymnast with the Champaign Gymnastics Academy. Though her mother considers gymnastics to be Madeleine’s best sport, the intensity of practices was at first difficult for her.

Often occurring Friday evenings, gymnastics practice sometimes tired Madeleine.

“I think that was hard for her because she had a whole week of school, her medications could make her tired and she really would be tired by that time of night,” Dawn McNulty said. “At the very beginning when she first started, she would come out crying about something, like an absolute meltdown, and you could tell that she had just had enough. For a while in the first few weeks, I didn’t know if this gymnastics thing was going to work out for her and then it just turned around and it clicked.”

Pursuing many things with her can-do attitude, Madeleine was thrilled when she learned she would be able to perform in Twist and Shout Dance Studio’s spring recital last year. Though she tragically passed before the big event, she invited her mother to watch her dance.

“Oddly, Feb. 21 last year, Madeleine said to me, ‘Mom, you have to come and see the dance.’ I remember thinking, ‘It’s only February, why does she want me to come and see her dance?’ I said ‘OK, I’ll go over,'” Dawn McNulty said. “It was my husband’s birthday and I had to run A to B and so I went and I videotaped her and it was the song ‘My Favorite Things’ from the ‘Sound of Music.’ By chance, that was the only time that we got to see her dance for what she would have done for the recital; it was a twist of fate.”

Passing away a mere few days later after experiencing complications from a seizure, Dawn McNulty said she is glad she decided to attend her daughter’s February class.

In June, Twist and Shout dedicated the recital to Madeleine, and area high school dancers and other dance studio members choreographed a special song in Madeleine’s honor.

“I remember thinking that June when the stage was there that you could see that little spot where she was supposed to be,” Dawn McNulty said. “I just could not believe it.”

Thankful for the outcry of support and the community’s response, McNulty credited the Mahomet-Seymour dance team for its continual support of Madeleine and her sister. Last year, coach Miller created an award, the Madeleine Claire McNulty Award, that represents one dancer who exhibits Madeleine’s spirit.

In addition to the dance team’s response, high school students created bracelets in her memory, along with T-shirts with a ballet dancer on them to honor Madeleine. All proceeds from the raised funds were donated to Madeleine’s Mahomet Area Magic Special Olympics team. The funds allowed the team to get new uniforms, purchase equipment and much more.

The McNulty family continues to express their appreciation of the Mahomet community and its ongoing support with the one-year anniversary of Madeleine’s passing approaching this weekend.

“I would say that there truly are no words for our family to express our true appreciation of the way this community embraced Madeleine,” Dawn McNulty said. “For the opportunities that she had in the 18 months that she lived here to be a part of Special Olympics, to be a part of the Mahomet-Seymour High School community, to be a part of Twist and Shout and for the outpour and support of this community that has gotten us through this last year.

“Every single time that I need it, one of her classmates will send me a Facebook message or drop by with cupcakes or send me a photo of Madeleine and they just happen to see it on their phone and they thought I would like it. At times, there’s just a constant undercurrent of support. I think that Madeleine loved being here because it’s just a special place. I think the community needs to know just how special they are.”

The Special Olympics Illinois Region I invites area residents to its Mahomet Area Polar Plunge. Volunteers and plungers are welcome to participate in the action and join Special Olympics Illinois in recognizing Madeleine McNulty during its opening ceremonies.

Volunteer registration begins at 9:30 a.m., and plunger registration begins at 10 a.m. For more information, visit

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