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Special Olympians play in golf tourney
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Citrus County Olympian Joann Huntington takes part in the putting competition at the Special Olympics Golf Tournament at the Belleview Biltmore Golf club.
BELLEAIR – The Belleview Biltmore Golf Club was abuzz on July 20 as the annual Special Olympics golf tournament took over the field. Eighty-five athletes from four counties participated in the event.

The coordinator of the event, Andrew Medlin, said the event serves not only as a way for the athletes to show their stuff, it also changes the common perception of the Special Olympic athlete.

“Spectators would be shocked at whatever kind of image they might have thought of about the Special Olympians; well, that isn’t the way it is,” he said. “Fewer than 10 percent of all golfers can break 90, yet Special Olympians can do it. They would also see that no matter how bad the shots are, they shake it off, pick themselves up and go back at it. A stranger would see kids and adults having the most fun they could have with smiles on everyone’s faces.”

Having that many golfers take over his course for the day was no chore for General Manager Bryan Cox. In fact he is one of those people who are amazed at what he was seeing.

“They are playing golf the way it should be played,” he said. “They are with their friends and cheering each other on. We can learn from them. We’re happy they are here and hope they come back again.”

One of Cox’s co-workers, Gerri Fortino of Belleair, was involved in the tournament on more than one front. Not only was she helping promote the event as director of marketing for the golf club, her daughter was an athlete-participant.

“It is particularly fun for me because my daughter is playing. My husband Richard is playing with her and you know I’m going to be taking pictures,” she said.

Fortino’s daughter, Jennifer, 43, was playing on the 5th hole with her dad and was all smiles.

“This is a lot of fun,” she said. “It is very hot today but it is fun. I like playing with my Dad because he hits it far.”

“She feels good about herself in a competition,” said her mother. “She has received many medals throughout the years in various states. The medals are as important to her as the Super Bowl is to a football player. It narrows the field for everybody to feel equal. Positive feelings are paramount for Special Olympians.”

Nearby Joann Huntington of Citrus County was taking part in a putting competition. She was enthusiastic about the entire experience.

“I love it; this is a nice place,” she said. “It is a quiet place and brings me to meet some nice people. They are friendly around here. I feel good and it helps me out. I love to meet new people.”

And that just about says it all regarding the Special Olympics program. Medlin, 33, has been coaching the Pinellas County Special Olympics Golf Team out of Clearwater for four years. He said he is constantly amazed at what the Special Olympics athletes can teach us.

“These athletes get a lot of sense of pride and enjoyment,” he said. “They have tremendous abilities; they are class act golfers no matter what their skill is. Just having the joy of success puts a smile on their face.”

Medlin said the key is how the athletes support one another.

“They are happy for the other guy, they are not as competitive,” he said. “It is all about their competing with themselves, it doesn’t matter what the other guy does.”

And that, he said, leads to a special kind of environment.

“It is totally an environment of support,” he said. “You leave your judgment at the door, it doesn’t matter what the skill level is. Their personal achievement and their giving it all make it fun for everybody, their coaches and their supporters.”

The supporters, especially parents, love the competition and the environment as much as the athletes.

“It gives you goose-bumps on your arm as you watch her,” said Jennifer Fortino’s mom Gerri. “The athletes are competing on their own level and are being accepted by each other. There is lots of love and lots of hugs they are happy to be here and proud of their achievements.
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