Last week, I had the privilege of playing 18 holes of golf with Rick Jeffrey, President of Special Olympics Virginia, Grace Anne Braxton, a Special Olympics World Games Gold Medalist in golf, and her father, the Honorable Harrison Braxton.  I was thrilled to play with them, but also a little intimidated by Grace Anne’s reputation on the golf course.  Over the course of the day, I realized I had a lot to learn from Grace-Anne, not only in terms of her short putts, but also how she, with the support of her family, community, and Special Olympics program, made her way to be the top Special Olympics female golfer in the world.

As a member of Team USA Grace Anne attended the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games and competed against other Special Olympics athletes in the most advanced level of competition.   I asked her what it felt like to be the top Special Olympics female golfer in the world and she proudly showed me her gold medal, which pretty much said it all. Despite her many achievements, Grace Anne said she wants to keep improving.   She wants more competition opportunities with people who are at her same level of golf, and she wants to continue to develop her skills, despite her demanding work schedule at a local hospital.

But Grace Anne’s accomplishments didn’t come easy.  As her father reminded us, she reached her level of competition because of the hard work she has put into the sport.   Grace Anne began golfing as a “level one” golfer, meaning she was in the first division, learning basic skills and techniques.  Rigorous training and practice allowed her to advance through each level, until she eventually reached the most advanced division, level 5.  Grace Anne’s story is one of hard-earned effort, patience, vision, and commitment.  She didn’t take any short-cuts.

Watching Grace Anne and her father interact was a perfect illustration of the integral role that families play in developing the skills and abilities of our athletes. Together, they recounted Grace Anne’s many experiences with Special Olympics from a young age, including swimming and softball.  Her father exposed her to new opportunities, allowed her try a number of different things, and then supported her when she realized that golf was her passion.

As Grace Anne was teeing up the ball somewhere on the back nine, her dad shouted to her right before her swing and said, “Grace Anne, your ball is outside the tee box.  Move it back.  You have to be careful with that.  It would be a 2-stroke penalty in competition play.”  This strong yet loving interaction was one of many that demonstrated the special bond between this father and daughter.  As they teased, laughed, competed and supported one another over the course of 18 holes, it reminded me just how much our athletes and their families can teach all of us about living, competing, and striving to be our best.

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