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Athletes shine at Duval County Special Olympics Summer Games

Florida Times-Union - 3/3/2019

March 03-- Mar. 3--Amanda Bussey cheered and applauded her teammates as she waited on the sideline for her soccer game to begin Saturday.

The 34-year-old who has an intellectual disability and is hearing impaired was among about 200 athletes who competed either individually or as part of a team Saturday in the Special Olympics Florida-Duval County Summer Games at Atlantic Coast High School.

"We're having fun," she said.

A light drizzle didn't dampen their spirits as the athletes competed for first place in five sports -- track and field, soccer, bocce, tennis and volleyball. About 200 volunteers joined family members, friends and neighbors to cheer on and coach the Special Olympians.

The athletes have been training for six weeks. Saturday's competition was an opportunity to showcase their skills.

It also was their first step on the potential path to advancing to the state Special Olympics on May 17 and 18 at ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, said Jessica Ray, director of Special Olympics Florida-Duval County.

"We really have a wide range participating today. ... On average, most of our athletes are between the age of 25 and 40 years old. I think today we have people in their 60s competing," Ray said.

Julie Bussey said her daughter rarely slows down. When she's not working at her longtime job, Amanda Bussey is a multisport athlete. In addition to soccer, she also competes in golf, surfing, stand-up paddle board and bowling -- just to name a few.

"She has a rack full of gold, silver and bronze medals at our house," Julie Bussey said of her daughter.

Last year, she was among the Special Olympics golfers who received a new set of clubs from The Players Red Coats and other members of the organization when it kicked off their Red Coat Ride Out.

Back then, Special Olympics had asked for a grant to assist purchasing equipment for the athletes. The Red Coats not only provided a check for $5,000 to the nonprofit organization but bought each of the golfers a new set of clubs.

"No water. No sand," Amanda Bussey confided about the secret for a successful golf game -- avoiding the water hazards and sand traps.

Julie Bussey chauffeured a half-dozen athletes from L'Arche Jacksonville, including her daughter, to Saturday's event. She could be found on the sidelines checking on each of them and cheering for them all.

Seeing her daughter happy and successful in life is a joy. It wasn't all that long ago -- maybe a generation -- when people with disabilities were dismissed and disparaged, she noted.

When her daughter was about 6 months old, an acquaintance said she would never amount to anything because of her disabilities.

"There are people that are 100 percent 'normal,' cause there is no other word to say it, that are less-productive members of society than Amanda," her mother said.

They are about 1,521 Special Olympics athletes throughout Duval County, which offers 15 sports for them. At least 800 volunteers, including high school students, teachers, business owners and members of community, civic and church groups, donate their time and skill to the athletes.

Many of her fellow athletes compete alongside their Unified Partners such as family members, community leaders, co-workers or friends without intellectual disabilities who play with them in various unified events such as golf, bocce, running, tennis or soccer.

Mother and daughter Bussey are a unified golfing team. In the future, they might try unified bocce, Julie Bussey said.

"I'd love to do it with her. But she can do it on her own, too" Julie Bussey said.

But that might be too tame for her daughter, who prefers action sports.

Saturday, it was hard to tell who was having more fun, the athletes or those cheering them on. Among the volunteers were members of Mandarin High School Mustangs softball team, who coached the participants in the softball throw.

"They [Mandarin players] get to give back in a way that is comfortable for them ... and they get to see what our athletes are capable of," Ray said of the Mandarin team and other high school students who volunteered. "So they're just out there playing softball, but they are playing softball with our athletes and kind of breaking down that barrier."

Special Olympics provides year-round sports training and competition to children and adults -- 8 and older -- who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Olympians also can participate in Athlete Leadership and Healthy Athletes programs.

"We do offer free health screening for our athletes, and a lot of people don't know that," said Ray, noting that Saturday their partner, Jacksonville Speech and Hearing, was doing free hearing screenings at the event.

Ray said they can connect the patients with doctors if they need post-screening care. Recently, a Clay County Special Olympian got hearing aids for the first time last week after years of hearing loss that had gone undiagnosed, she said.

For more information, or to volunteer or donate to Special Olympics Florida-Duval County: https://specialolympicsflorida.org/duval.

Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075

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