Chestnut Hill resident Amira Heep, 18, wears a medal she won at a track meet earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of Jeremy Heep)

by Sue Ann Rybak

At first glance, it might be easy to dismiss Chestnut Hill resident Amira Heep. She is reserved and speaks softly, but that would be a mistake. Not only do Heep’s accomplishments prove overwise, but her words are articulated with absolute resoluteness.

Heep, who was diagnosed with Down Syndrome, said people sometimes make fun of her voice. Down syndrome is a genetic disorder caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21. People with Down syndrome have low muscle tone (hypotonia), which affects speech.

When people do mock her voice, “I tell them how powerful I am,” she said. “I want to tell the world and other people with disabilities that you should be yourself. Be proud of who you are.”

On May 18, Heep showed people just how powerful and talented she was by singing the National Anthem at the opening ceremony of this year’s Special Olympics Montgomery County Invitational Track and Field Meet held at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School, 201 E. Germantown Pike in Plymouth Meeting.

Scott Otterbein, Heep’s coach and head of Montgomery County Special Olympics Track and Field Long Distance Running Program, said he has watched her grow from a reserved 14-year-old into a confident, 18-year-old resilient woman.

“I couldn’t have imagined her singing the national anthem when I first met her,” he said. “Amira loves music; she was always at practice with headphones on.”

Otterbein, whose daughter also has Down Syndrome, recalled when Heep sang at the Special Olympics Basketball tournament held at the Montgomery County Community College on April 14, 2019.

“There were a lot of spectators there [over 300 people], and she did great,” he said.

He added that not only did Heep sing at the track meet, but she competed as well. She finished third in the 100 meters, fourth in the 4 x 100 and running jump and fifth in javelin.

Heep and several other members of the Wicked Fast Track and Field Team qualified, and will be competing in the 50th Annual Summer Games held from June 6 to June 8, 2019 at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania.

The Special Olympics Summer Games is the largest statewide competition, bringing more than 2,000 athletes and 750 coaches from across the state of Pennsylvania together to compete in seven sports: aquatics, basketball, equestrianism, golf, gymnastics, softball and tennis.

Heep, who will graduate from Roxborough High School on May 31, will be competing in the 100 meters, 4 x 100 relay, shot put and javelin. Earlier this year, she was awarded the AMBUCS Special Athlete Most Improved Track and Field Award.

“Amira was the most improved female track athlete,” Otterbein said. “She had new personal best records in her 100, javelin, shot put and long jump.”

He said Special Olympics provides opportunities for people with special needs to build their confidence, because they learn “to master a particular skill set, which is just as important as the social interaction between athletes, parents and coaches.

“It increases their self-reliance and resilience; they say, ‘I can do that,’” he said.

It is that belief in herself that has helped propel Heep forward. Although she sometimes struggles to meet society’s expectations, she doesn’t care what others think of other. Ultimately, Heep, who was recently voted prom queen by her senior class, knows her power lies within her.

When she feels sad, angry or overwhelmed, she writes and produces her own music using Garage Band. As a student at Roxborough High School, she was enrolled in the Academy of Visual Arts Production, where she studied web design, film and video production.

In 2016, she attended Temple University’s summer camp for songwriting; she also attended the School of Rock’s summer camp in Fort Washington for four years.

Recently, Heep learned she was accepted into Temple’s Career Leadership Career Studies Program, a four-year program that provides young adults with special needs “an authentic college experience while developing academic abilities, career aspirations, work skills and independence.”

Heep, now 18, isn’t sure exactly what she wants to do in the future; she loves music and working with animals. One thing is certain, she will continue to be herself and be proud of who she is – Amira Heep: singer, writer, producer, athlete, prom queen, Roxborough High School graduate and Chestnut Hill resident.

Sue Ann Rybak can be reached at 215-248-8804.