By Tyler Lagasse
My week in New Jersey was so big, so busy, and so mesmerizing that it was more than just a golf tournament for me, it was an experience that will stay with me forever. On Saturday, June 14th, I arrived at the College of New Jersey where my delegation and I would call home for a week. On Sunday, June 15th, the state of New Jersey opened its arms to the 3,000-strong athletes with a stunning Opening Ceremony taking place at the Prudential Center in Newark. Throughout the week, every athlete — myself included — set out to be brave in their attempts. They did more than that. They showed America and the world what the spirit of Special Olympics is made of.
For three straight days, I represented Massachusetts on the golf course along with five athletes and Unified partners that took part in the golfing competition at Mercer Oaks golf course. Round-one was on a Monday, and my first two holes of the 54-hole Level V tournament were pars. Then for the next five holes I could not do any better than a bogey. But out of this slump came four straight pars. My shot of the day came on the par-3, 16th hole where I had this 30-foot putt just to save par. My ball appeared to go from right to left and it went in the hole for my 5th par in six holes. I would make my last par on the next hole, the par-4, 17th. I finished the day with four bogey holes in a row and my score for the 1st round was 84.
The 2nd and 3rd rounds saw me paired up with South Carolina’s Scott Rohrer, who shot a 76 in his first round. With a camera crew following both of us that Tuesday, the beginning of my 2nd round was identical to my 1st as I reeled in back-to-back pars. After two more bogies I saved par from 15 feet on the par-3, 5th. The 6th was the most difficult stroke hole and I hit two brilliant shots with the driver and 5-iron on my way to the green where I made par. I was an approach shot away from a possible birdie on the 7th, but that hole ended with a double bogey for me. I missed a putt for birdie from five feet out on the par-3, 8th and took a par. A bogey on 9 gave me a score of 41 on the front nine.
I began the back nine with three straight bogies. But I followed that up with three straight pars. After a bogey on 16, I went to the 17th and launched a drive with a 3-wood that nearly ended up in Lake Mercer. My 2nd shot found the green and I had a chance at birdie. My putt was uphill but I went for the hole and the ball went in it. This would prove to be my only birdie of the games. A bogey on the last hole would give me a score of 40 on the back nine and a total of 81 for the 2nd round. Scott Rohrer meanwhile shot a 78 as he was on his way towards his second gold medal.
The 3rd and final round was more or less anticlimactic as Scott continued to play the game that gave him scores in the 70’s as I continued to struggle to play for par. I had my worst round of the three-day tournament as I finished with an 88 in the 3rd round. But in the end I was good enough to receive a silver medal in my second appearance in the Special Olympics USA Games. Above all, this tournament and these games was about overcoming immeasurable odds, facing incredible challenges, and breaking down perceptions and myths of people living with disabilities one brick at a time. Inevitably the games had to come to a close, and on Friday, June 20th the closing ceremony in Trenton paid tribute to the hard working men and women that made the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games a memorable one. From beginning to end, it was more than a sporting event, it was a celebration of the human spirit.
To conclude this story, let me say that I am lucky to have taken part in two national games for Special Olympics. When I came to Nebraska in 2010, I saw a legion of special people united in their cause for acceptance. In New Jersey in 2014, I witnessed it again. People from all 50 states, plus D.C., came together to seek an era where they are not viewed by their disabilities but by their courage, determination, and bravery against serious obstacles. In the first round, I witnessed firsthand my opponent from Tennessee go down in pain and require medical attention, but he came back to complete the hole and finish the tournament. Before my own eyes, I saw heart, I saw soul, and I saw guts. You’ll never know how special these events are until you come see them in person because there is nothing like it. The opening and closing ceremonies just make you stop and be overcome with such passion and make you wonder why can’t it be like this in the professional level of all sports? For me, these games served as a reminder that goodness, goodwill, and good sportsmanship exist.
The 2014 Special Olympics USA Games were more than just about sports, it was a life-changer for everyone involved, including me, because it’s allowed me to feel proud of what I have done and it’s given me the feeling of joy in being a part of something special. The memories I take with me cannot be summed up mathematically, they can only be described and passed down to future generations so that they will enjoy the same moments I have experienced. In the end, all of those who experienced it all for one week in New Jersey became winners.