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Sport 'She takes joy in hitting every shot': How golf changed a Special Olympian's life and put her on a national stage

14:47  01 july  2021
14:47  01 july  2021 Source:   golfweek.com

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There’s a strong case to be made that one of the most versatile athletes on the Florida coast is 36-year-old Special Olympian Amanda Bussey of Jacksonville.

a man and a woman sitting on a boat © Provided by Golfweek

She’s certainly one of the most decorated. Bussey has won 18 medals in Florida State Special Olympics competition (seven gold, six silver and five bronze) and more than 30 medals when adding regional events.

And Amanda has earned those medals in six sports: golf, bowling, basketball, soccer, surfing and stand-up paddleboarding.

But her ticket to next year’s Special Olympics U.S. Games in Orlando is golf, where she qualified under the alternate-shot format, which pairs a Special Olympian with a family member or friend. They then take turns hitting shots on each hole for a team score.

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In Amanda Bussey’s case, her partner will be Hidden Hills member Jane Verkouten, a retired banker from Charlotte, N.C., who never imagined herself playing a sport on a national stage before she met Amanda – a match orchestrated by Robin Luck, another Hidden Hills member whose son Ryan plays Special Olympics golf.

To this day Luck, who is a volunteer on the Northeast Florida Region Special Olympics management team, isn’t sure why he thought Amanda and Jane would make a good team.

“I really didn’t know they would,” he said. “I just threw it out there. I thought Jane might be the type of person who was interested.”

Amanda had been playing with her mother, but Julie Bussey, a real estate advisor for Engel and Volkers, was concerned her job wasn’t giving her enough time to play and practice and asked Luck to help her find another partner.

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Verkouten and her husband Steve Bona don’t have children together (Bona has one son from a previous marriage) but she doesn’t view the relationship with Amanda Bussey as a mother-daughter or even big sister-little sister dynamic.

All she knows is that it works, and it has enriched her life.

“She’s such an incredible, happy person,” Verkouten said of Amanda. “She’s so enthusiastic about playing and gets so excited when we have a round scheduled. I get texts from her all that day telling me how she can’t wait to get on the golf course. I would just describe it as a really good friendship. We celebrate birthdays and Christmas, go to lunch and dinner … and we play a lot of golf.”

In addition to her intellectual disability, Amanda is deaf because of spinal meningitis that nearly killed her when she was 2 years old. Her mother, Verkouten and other family and close friends can understand her but mostly Amanda communicates with her eyes, gestures and smile — all of which speak volumes.

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And less than year out from the 2022 U.S. Special Olympics, Amanda is already counting down the days.

“June 5,” she says excitedly, pumping both of her arms in the air.

And while Amanda has excelled in multiple sports, golf is her favorite, for one key reason.

“It takes a long time,” she said.

Her mother explained.

“It takes longer to play a round of golf than a basketball or soccer game,” she said. “That means Amanda gets to spend more time doing something she loves.”

A happy baby, then questions

Julie Bussey read all the baby books. She had long conversations with her doctor. She took all of the prenatal precautions. She was more than ready for her first-born child Amanda, who checked in at a healthy 7 pounds, 10 ounces on Sept. 23, 1984, at the Valley Medical Center in Fayetteville, N.C., near Fort Bragg, where her father Larry was a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne.

In the first few weeks, friends and family fawned over Amanda’s dark brown eyes and curly dark hair. Words such as “gorgeous” and “beautiful” were music to the ears of her mother, who spent long hours cradling a happy infant who smiled frequently, nursed enthusiastically and hardly ever cried.

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“When she was hungry or needed changing, she could make these small sounds, a very subtle fuss,” Julie Bussey said. “She never cried at the top of her lungs. It was more of a pouty sound, and when she got fed or changed, she stopped. Everything was good.”

But by the time Amanda reached four months old, her mother began noticing little things. She had read enough to know a baby’s timetable: when they could hold their heads up, when they could roll over or when they attempted to get on hands and knees to crawl.

Months went by without Amanda reaching those milestones. Her mother had her tested at Walter Reed Army Hospital in suburban Washington D.C., and doctors didn’t come up with anything conclusive, other than Amanda had low muscle tone and slow motor skills.

They eventually diagnosed her with muscular dystrophy, “just so we could start some therapy,” Julie Bussey said.

Much later, then found out that Amanda had what is now called “I/DD” — intellectual and developmental differences.

Once again, Julie Bussey followed doctors’ advice diligently and never missed a therapy session or working with her daughter at home.

She became pregnant with her son Daniel (daughters Rachel and Tiffany would follow), with all four children born within a five-year span.

It was large, happy family.

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Then every mother’s nightmare came dangerously close to coming true.

Slipping away … then coming back

Julie Bussey went to the small bedroom where 2-year-old Amanda had been put down for an afternoon nap a few hours earlier. When she picked her daughter up, Bussey said the feeling was as if Amanda “was on fire.”

She quickly took the baby’s temperature: 105 degrees. Amanda was rushed to Fort Bragg’s Womack Medical Center, where measures were quickly taken to try to control the raging fever.

There was little change the next morning. Julie Bussey had not left her child’s side but watching her laying on her back, listless, hardly moving, a horrible feeling began coursing through her body.

“I saw her leaving me,” Julie Bussey said. “I called for the nurse and told her, ‘I can see her going away … get someone in here. Do something.’”

Doctors did a spinal tap and more aggressive antibiotics were started. Julie Bussey was told the devastating news: Amanda might not survive the day.

But it’s also when Julie Bussey found out that she had one tough little girl. Amanda held on … and slowly came back. She was in the hospital for two weeks before being discharged.

Julie Bussey said one other child in their neighborhood caught meningitis but never really found out how Amanda contracted it.

Later, they found out one lasting effect: Amanda was completely deaf in her left ear, and she is unable to hear high-frequency sounds in her right ear.

Meningitis also slowed down Amanda’s physical therapy and timetable for crawling, walking and talking.

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However, she more than made up for lost time.

Catching up and being a kid

By the time Amanda was 5 years old, her motor skills began catching up to what was considered typical for a child that age. Her mother moved her and her brother and sisters back to the First Coast in 1990 and soon after, Amanda hit every kid milestone on time: learning to ride a bike, swim and more than that, keep up with her siblings and the other kids in their Atlantic Beach neighborhood.

It was almost as if Amanda had some catching up to do.

“Physically, she caught everyone and there wasn’t a thing that the other kids were doing that she couldn’t do,” Julie Bussey said. “And we treated her as normally as possible. Her brother and sisters were always great with her, and the kids in the neighborhood accepted her, once they learned to understand her challenges as far as her hearing and speech.”

Family friends expressed some surprise that Julie Bussey made the same demands of Amanda as her other children.

“She had to clean her room, clear the table after dinner … everything the other kids had to do,” she said. “People would actually be surprised about that but Amanda was the one who wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The difficult part was when Julie Bussey’s other children began going to Fletcher High School, getting their driver’s license and getting after-school jobs. Amanda simply couldn’t engage in most of the rites of passage for teenagers.

One place where Amanda wasn’t held back was sports. She has been competitive in every sport she’s attempted but golf is what got her to the U.S. Special Olympics, where she and Ryan Luck are the only two of an estimated 1,200 Special Olympic athletes in Duval qualified in golf, and among 17 statewide.

Going for the gold

Once Amanda started winning Special Olympics medals, there has been no stopping her. And it’s to the point where silver and bronze aren’t good enough anymore.

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“She hates to lose,” her mother said. “You can tell that when she’s on the podium with the other athletes to get their medals, she’s not happy unless she’s standing on the higher step for gold.”

Amanda Bussey began playing golf 12 years ago when The Players Championship sponsored a clinic for special-needs adults at the TPC Sawgrass. Her mother had no idea how good her daughter would be but it only took one swing to convince her.

“She started hitting the ball and it was like anything else she’s tried … she’s a natural athlete,” Julie Bussey said. “I kept thinking, ‘wow’ … one more thing she can do.”

Special Olympics golfers have to progress in stages. They must first perform in a skills challenge not unlike Augusta National’s Drive, Chip and Putt competition, then progress to the second phase, playing alternate shot with a non-Special Olympian.

That’s where Verkouten came in. The two then had to win a gold medal at the Florida Special Olympics and then go into a lottery system

They found out in mid-June that Amanda and Verkouten had made it. In Orlando next year, they will be competing against more than 200 other golfers from the U.S. representing all 50 states.

“She loves the game and she keeps getting better,” Verkouten said of Amanda. “She hits incredible tee shots, but like every other golfer, she’ll have some good and bad shots, good and bad putts. We’re both kind of unpredictable that way. But she will play as often as she can get out there.”

“Putting is hard,” Amanda agreed.

She then pointed to a leather tag on her golf bag that has become their mantra: “No water, no sand.”

Out on her own

Amanda Bussey moved out of her mother’s house five years ago and lives at the Arc Jacksonville Village, a residence for adults with special needs who are able to live and work on their own.

She had a job at Steinmart for 16 years before the chain went out of business, and now works at Marshall’s. She has three nephews and nieces and is the “fun” aunt, according to her mother.

“She loves babies and they’ve loved her right back,” Julie Bussey said. “She’s an adult but she’s still such a kid at heart. It’s why she loves sports so much.”

Golf may become the fastest-growing sport for children and adults with special needs. This past spring, Amy Bockerstette of Paradise Valley Community College near Phoenix, already believed to be the first athletes with Down syndrome to play college sports on scholarship, achieved another first, playing in the National Junior College Championship women’s championship in Ormond Beach.

Modern sports psychologists who work with golfers stress staying in the moment, not worrying about results and putting both good and bad shots behind. Julie Bussey said that’s exactly how her daughter not only plays golf but approaches life.

“She takes joy in hitting every shot,” she said of her daughter. “I wish I could live in her world just for five minutes – not worry about work, the cable bill, food prices – just live for every moment. That’s the blessing she gives all of us.”

Verkouten said her relationship and the days she has spent with Amanda on the golf course have taught her a valuable lesson.

“When I’m having a bad day at golf, I just think of how happy it makes Amanda to just be out there,” she said. “Then you don’t worry so much about a bad shot.”

About Special Olympics

• The Northeast Florida Region of Special Olympics has more than 3,000 athletes — around 1,200 in Duval County.

• There will be 17 athletes from the Northeast Florida Region who will represent the state in the Special Olympics U.S. Games in Orlando June 5-12, 2022.

• More than 4,000 athletes and 10,000 volunteers will participate in the U.S. Games.

• For information on the programs offered in Northeast Florida Special Olympics, visit the website at specialolympicsflorida.org/northeast.

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