Have you ever competed with a Special Olympian?
If you have yet to get the chance, I highly recommend it.
Special Olympics is dedicated to helping individuals with intellectual disabilities train and compete in sports — and I can tell you from personal experience that they can be incredibly talented athletes.
Let me tell you about my new friend Tony Marino, a 46-year-old Salt Lake City native who started playing golf at a clinic at Riverside at least 20 years ago.
For the past few years, I have been honored to pair up with one of these impressive athletes as we have chipped and putted in the annual Utah Open Special Olympics Short Game Challenge at Riverside Country Club. On Monday, I was fortunate enough to have Marino as my partner.
The challenge began with a short chip onto the practice green and the rules were simple. During the nine-hole competition each of us would hit a “tee shot,” then we would play the best ball and alternate shots until we got it into the hole.
Let’s just say that our opening hits were not very good, leaving us with a lot of work to do.
Marino put the ball to a few feet away but my line was off and I missed our third shot, tagging us with a four on No. 1.
Knowing how good the other golfers are, I suspected we might have shot ourselves out of contention right out of the gate and told my partner that we now could just relax and have some fun.
Marino agreed in principle — but this is a man who loves to compete too much to just goof off.
Instead, he showed me exactly how skilled he is at short-game golf.
Hole after hole, he stepped up and hit beautiful putts as he almost singlehandedly carried our team up the leaderboard.
As we teed off on Hole No. 8, he hit a gorgeous putt that just missed but in doing so showed me the line — and miraculously my ball somehow dropped into the bottom of the cup.
Thanks to Marino’s impressive putting, we didn’t need more than two shots on any of the other holes as we completed our round.
When the scores were tallied, I found out to my amazement that we had finished in first place.
Marino, however, wasn’t surprised at all.
“I just look to where I can make breaks on the putts and where the ball would roll,” Marino said. “Then I just tried to go straight at it.”
D’Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, president and CEO of the Special Olympics of Utah, said Marino is a great success story.
“Tony has spent years building up his golf game,” she said. “He is actually a qualified coach for golf, so when our athletes reach a certain level they go on to become coaches. He also just returned from the USA Games in Seattle and in his division, he took the silver medal.”
When I asked him what it was like to have a poor partner that he had to carry around the course for the contest, Marino said: “You aren’t really a poor partner. You are someone who has fun.”
And that right there is why I admire these Special Olympians so much.
These are competitors who want to make the big putts in golf or the big plays in other events. They love success and to win.
But they haven’t lost the true joy that comes from just playing. When I step up there with them, I get to share in their pure passion and love of the game.
“Tony loves the game of golf,” Pignanelli said. “Our athletes love competition. They love sports and so they are in for it.”
I took a moment to look around at the other Special Olympians and their counterparts as they enjoyed a few minutes of teamwork, cheering each other on whether they made a great shot or a poor one.
“This is a big event for a lot of our athletes,” Marino said. “We also have two athletes coming in later this week and playing in a pro-am. This is a big week for Special Olympics all the way around. We root for each other and have a good time with everybody.”
There are opportunities out there — and not just in golf — for individuals like you to take some time to help or participate with these vivacious athletes. Pignanelli said many can be found on the Special Olympics website (sout.org) or by contacting Special Olympics of Utah.
While I can’t guarantee that you will have a competitive partner who will do all the work like I had on Monday, I can guarantee you will meet some amazing friends and come away with great perspective and appreciation for their pure love of sports.