Cheering the determined
A golfing pilgrimage with my brother to the Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi
By David Claffey
This past May, I was part of a family pilgrimage to the biggest sporting and humanitarian event staged in the world this year. It was the awe-inspiring 2019 edition of the Special Olympics World Summer Games, held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the UAE, hosted the event and put an immense effort into making the Games really memorable for athletes, coaches, families, volunteers, and spectators alike.
Team Ireland consisted of 91 athletes, eight of whom were golfers. I was gripped with excitement and anticipation of seeing my brother Mark competing for Ireland in the nine-hole individual golf event.
The making of a medalist
On discovering that Mark had Down syndrome 30 years ago, my parents, Breeda and John, were emotionally overwhelmed with the fear of the unknown. On hearing the news, their good friend Laura O’Mara said to them, “Don’t worry about that extra chromosome; one day he might grow up to be an Olympic champion.” I doubt at the time they expected it to come to pass.
Growing up, Mark had challenges with learning to read and write, and also with clarity of speech. However, he benefited greatly from growing up in a big Irish family. Myself, Aidan and Brian (his three older brothers) and his younger sister Jenny put him through his paces and did our best to equip him with everyday social and survival skills. With the benefit of special education, drama and speech therapy, he has matured into a very confident individual.
Mark’s introduction to golf began in my early teens, when both of us played pitch-and-putt together. Over time his ability to play golf became evident, so as part of the local Special Olympics club, he progressed to indoor golf mats, followed by some outdoor pitching, before learning to drive at the golf range. As a golfing family, we would often take him out on the course; our brother Aidan, who currently plays off a low handicap, was a great help in this regard and mentored Mark before the World Games.
Involvement in sport has been a great avenue for Mark’s social skills and building camaraderie and friendships. Besides golf, he plays basketball, tennis and bowling. He is also very passionate about music. He is an accomplished player of the tin whistle, a traditional Irish instrument. He takes part in amateur theater and has appeared in various musicals with the local Glencullen Musical Society, too. All of these pursuits have shaped Mark into the character he is today.
Mark had opportunities to qualify for golf in the Special Olympics World Games in 2015 but narrowly missed out. So when he won gold at national level in 2018 and was subsequently selected to play in Abu Dhabi in 2019, the whole family was overjoyed. I remember Mark telling us that he was going to Abu Dhabi to bring home the gold medal, so we could have a big party! We admired his determination; but honestly, just taking part was enough excitement for us back then.
Mark had a rigorous regime between September and March on Special Olympics training weekends, where he met one of his golfing heroes, Padraig Harrington, who also gave him golfing advice to prepare him for the games. He displayed great determination with all his stroke practice, particularly his pitching and putting on the greens. Aidan would regularly take him out to the driving range to ensure he would be ready for the challenge ahead.
Journey to Abu Dhabi
On hearing of Mark’s selection, our immediate family and partners, along with wider family and friends, all confirmed they would go on the golfing pilgrimage to the Middle East. When the time arrived, Team Ireland athletes were given an amazing sendoff at Dublin Airport on March 7. For many this was the first time they would be traveling without close family at their side. For our family, we would be making our way out to Abu Dhabi in time for the opening ceremony on March 14.
Upon arriving in Abu Dhabi, one of the first things we noticed was that the publicity for the World Games had the headline “Meet the Determined.” Referring to people with an intellectual disability as “the determined” was something that resonated with us all.
At the games
The opening ceremony was fabulous. All participating athletes paraded into the arena. When Team Ireland came out, Mark was at the top of the Irish delegation alongside the flag bearer. This was such a proud moment for our family. The ceremony culminated with an inspiring speech by Timothy Shriver, son of Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who passed away 10 years ago.
The golf event started on Sunday, March 17, which was St. Patrick’s Day: a good omen, we mused. The format was two days of divisional qualifying, followed by two days of competition. One of the challenges for the athletes was the sometimes-hot March weather in UAE (reaching up to 83 degrees Fahrenheit) with a strong afternoon sun.
Mark teed off to great fanfare at lunchtime that day. The first day was overcast and humid, with sandy wind coming off the coast. So while he was spared the sun, Mark had to contend with the wind. Even our enthusiastic support couldn’t make up for the fact that it was a difficult day to score well. Mark ended up with a first round of 61.
The weather on day two — bright blue skies with warm sunshine — certainly helped. Mark had a really strong day and made it into the main competition.
During the last two days, while the supporters wrestled with the strong sun, Mark put on a great show to score a solid 57, which put him into a good position for the final day.
For his last day on the links, Mark impressed us all with his golf. He had challenges out on the course, but his caddy, Rob Sherman, worked hard to keep him calm and encouraged him to play the right shots. Rob had never worked with an athlete with an intellectual disability before, but it became immediately clear that there was a terrific bond between him and Mark. Rob was impressed by Mark’s confidence in getting the job done.
Mark finished strongly over the last three holes for a final day score of 56, which meant he definitely had a chance for the gold. After he finished, there was a long wait for all the other golfers to complete their rounds and have all the scores tallied.
Going for gold
The waiting period was filled with excitement, nervousness and anticipation. While Mark waited eagerly by the big scoreboard, he took me aside to explain his score for each round. By now he was pinching himself, as he waited to see his final score.
When the official scorekeeper finally filled in Mark’s results, all of this emotion bubbled over. His final tally showed he had indeed finished ahead of his rivals. It really was a special moment as he jumped up and down with joy! Mark had won gold at the World Games!
The medal ceremony and the evening celebrations which followed were a time of unbridled joy for us as a family. It is hard to put it into words.
One very touching moment was when Mark gestured skyward and said, “Thank you, Tommy,” to his late uncle Tommy Sheridan, who used to demonstrate his golf swing to Mark in the family kitchen. As a family we had a strong sense Tommy had guided Mark.
It was clear from the messages and notes we received that Mark had made so many people proud. His caddy Rob said, “I have had one of the most enlightening weeks of my life working with Mark. I am so happy that I could assist in his great achievement.”
Coming home, Mark became a mini-celebrity in Ireland for the next few weeks. After the Games, everyone wanted a piece of Mark to congratulate him. He has taken this in stride, confidently handling media requests and reveling in guest appearances.
Now, with the benefit of a few months’ reflection, it’s fair to say we feel quite humbled by the whole experience.
The Special Olympics is a fantastic organization for which we as a family are eternally grateful. Put simply, Special Olympics changes lives. Through all their sporting programs, they strive to improve the overall lives of people with intellectual disabilities.
The emphasis is acceptance and inclusion of people with varying abilities, ensuring these individuals are living their lives to the fullest extent possible — a focus on the ability rather than the disability. The life experiences that each athlete will take away from the Games will extend far beyond their chosen sport.
It just goes to show that with a bit of determination, anything is possible.
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