NEW PORT RICHEY
Here, they walk proud.
Their heads are held high. They smile, wave, maybe even give a wink and pose.
Athletes of Unified Golf, a sport coordinated through the Special Olympics of Pasco, hit the links as a two-man team. They usually head over to Seven Springs Golf and Country Club, but also play around the Tampa Bay area in tournaments and events.
And it's all for them. That way they have a chance to play golf as well.
"This is a bonding time for the athletes and their partners, and you'll see that right on the course when they celebrate a good shot," said Val Lundin, coordinator of Special Olympics in Pasco County. "It's also an individual game, so that's a self-esteem boost just from being able to come to the course and be with their dad or whoever.
"You see them get a pep in their step because they think, 'That's something dad did, so I can, too.' "
Teams consist of an athlete, who is mentally challenged or autistic, and a partner, who isn't. However, the partner need not be a family member, but can be a friend or sponsor. When they play either nine or 18 holes, teammates alternate shots, strategically deciding how the hole is played out. This is extremely beneficial for the athletes, teaching them teamwork and how to communicate socially.
Take, for example, athlete Matt Ross, a senior at Mitchell High School. His partner is school resource officer Sgt. Joe Kohler, who was asked one day by Ross. "How could I say no?" Kohler said he replied, but adds the program is perfect for these kids.
"This is great for Matt," Kohler said, "because what this does is open the lines of communication for a regular athlete and the Special Olympics kids.
"And he's doing really well. He's actually carried me a couple of times (laughs)."
Ross, who has Asperger's, a low form of autism, likes the fact that he can play various courses in the area.
"This is very fun," Ross said. "I like being able to go to different places and see their golf features they have and then see if I can play that course.
"The challenge of it is very cool. I usually have a blast."
Chris Eddleman, who has Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome and played with his dad, Bill, for 10 years, struggled to express his fun, but manages nine hole much better.
"I like playing nine holes," Chris Eddleman said with some help. "Going out on course is great. Fun."
They even get to perform on larger stages, such as the 2008 State Championships coming up Sept. 12-13 at the Legends Golf and Country Club and the Kings Ridge Golf Club, both in Clermont.
On Aug. 21, they participated in a skills test, having to score 60 out of 120 points to qualify. Four teams, two nine-hole and two 18-hole teams, will be going. But unified golf especially brings together families because many teams are families.
Such as Dakota and Austin Gignac, 11 and 10, respectively. Their mom, Tina, has had them playing for about a year, and enjoys seeing her two sons, one who has Down's syndrome, working together.
"They don't have a sibling rivalry that some kids may have," she said. "They've learned to not play against each other."
And as teams work together, as the athletes find their own spotlight, they garner a following, just like a professional golfer might have a crowd of fans follow him at a tournament. But these people turn out to be the athlete's fan club.
"I think the mothers and the fathers and the siblings smile as much as the athletes do," Lundin said. "It's a family atmosphere and everyone who gets involved with this thinks it's awesome because they never ever thought they'd be able to do this with their child.
"Especially moms though, as they follow their athletes, you see some of them cry, have some tears of joy. I sure they can't help it, but, really, can you blame them?"
Community Sports Editor Mike Camunas can be reached at (352) 544-1771 or [email protected]sptimes.com.