Jeanne DeCarlo holds a deep respect and appreciation for all the athletes currently competing in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Ask the Brookfield resident to pick a particular athlete for inspiration and the reply rolls off her tongue as smoothly as a precise flip turn in a swimming pool.

“Michael Phelps,” she says. “He’s an amazing athlete. I’ve been keeping an eye on all the swimming and gymnastics at the Olympics. I feel a big bond with all the athletes, but Michael Phelps is my favorite.”

DeCarlo shares something in common with her idol Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time with a record 20 medals (as of this writing). DeCarlo competed last summer in the 2011 Special Olympics World Games in Athens, Greece, the same venue Phelps snagged six gold and two bronze medals as a teenager at the 2004 Summer Olympics.

Last summer in Athens, DeCarlo won a gold medal in the 200-meter freestyle relay, a bronze medal in the 100-meter freestyle and claimed fourth place in the 5- meter freestyle. Befitting her team-first mentality, it seemed only appropriate DeCarlo captured gold in a group event.

“Winning the gold medal together as a team was a powerful experience,” DeCarlo says. “There were a lot of hugs between us. We felt so proud of our accomplishment.”

During the 200-freestyle relay race, DeCarlo stayed in the pool treading water after Team USA ensured victory to cheer on the other international swimmers.

“Jeanne earned the nickname of ambassador [in Greece],” says Sheri DeCarlo, Jeanne’s mother and coach at the Greater LaGrange YMCA. “She was so wonderful to all the other teams and very friendly with her fellow Olympians.”

DeCarlo estimates she collected over 50 pins from 130 countries during the 2011 Special Olympics World Games. DeCarlo and the other swimmers received their medals inside the incredible aquatics center of the OAKA, the Athens Olympics Sports Complex, the same venue Phelps and other Olympians competed in 2004.

“It was an incredible experience meeting athletes from all over the world,” DeCarlo says. “I think I fell in love with all the teams and supported all of them.”

Reflective of the unified feeling among the representatives at the Special Olympics games, no national anthems were played as the idea of a global community was fostered during the fortnight. DeCarlo had plenty of local support as well with 10 family members and friends making the trip to Athens.

On a rare off day during her whirlwind Olympic experience, DeCarlo spent her time doing what else but swimming, of course – with her loved ones in the rooftop pool of their Marriott Hotel with views of the Acropolis. The DeCarlo contingent also went shopping and sightseeing in downtown Athens and enjoyed ice cream.

“Greece is an amazing and beautiful country,” DeCarlo says. “It was a once in a lifetime experience.”

Serving as a pre-Olympics pep rally of sorts, DeCarlo and her fellow Illinois Special Olympics World Games representatives were treated to a sendoff party at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Chicago, hosted by sports personality Lou Canellis. Upon arrival in Greece, the team trained on the island of Rhodes, Greece in the eastern Aegean Sea. After their mini-training camp, the group took a 12-hour ferry ride to Athens for the June 18 Opening Ceremonies.

On the flip side of the Special Olympics experience, DeCarlo took a brief respite upon her return home to Brookfield. Soon after, she resumed swimming workouts in addition to bowling, being active in her church, and volunteering at the LaGrange Greater YMCA. Recently, she won a gold medal in an area bowling event and will compete in a bowling district tournament in October.

“When I came back home, everybody in the community was so supportive,” DeCarlo says. “My neighbor and her granddaughter decorated my front door with a welcome back sign. It was very touching.”

She has also earned the honor of serving as a global messenger for the Special Olympics in the Illinois-Northwest Suburban area. It’s a role that fits the personable DeCarlo perfectly. The Lyons Township High School grad has visited rotary clubs and schools, talked with parents and kids, and even spoke in front of over 100 police chiefs spreading the purpose and message of the Special Olympics.

“I am so blessed,” DeCarlo says. “I am nothing without the support and love of my family and friends. They mean the world to me. And I have the chance to participate in so many activities like swimming and bowling, which I love, and I get to meet interesting new people.”

Involved in sports for over 20 years, DeCarlo estimates she has won 122 medals. A self-described “fish in the water,” she began swimming instinctively at 18 months old.

“We went to the lake and she was crawling on the sand,” says Sheri DeCarlo, who grew up a competitive swimmer. “My husband and I were just watching her, getting ready to laugh when the water hits her. When the water came, she just kept going. I ran up to save her and see what she would do. She started swimming!”

In a couple of years, the humble DeCarlo is planning on going all Hollywood – in the best sense of that description. She hopes to compete in the 2014 Special Olympics World Games to be held in Los Angeles.

“The Olympic spirit to me is about people doing the very best they can,” DeCarlo says. “It’s about working hard, becoming a team and listening to your coaches. It’s so rewarding to realize my dreams and watch other athletes do the same.”