In two waves, a triumphant Team Kentucky clattered its way up the runway at Louisville International Airport on June 22 to be greeted by cheering friends and family. The team — made up of 38 athletes and one Unified partner — grabbed 36 medals at the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games, in addition to numerous ribbons and all were worn proudly as the team returned to the Commonwealth. The total medal count matched exactly the number of medals Team Kentucky brought home from the 2010 Games in Nebraska.
Maybe the best Team Kentucky story of the 2014 Games was of the Gold Medalist that almost wasn’t. Bocce athlete Jesse Pennington of Goshen is not a fan a flying. And when it came time to board the flight out of Louisville, Pennington was having none of it. Faced with the idea of her son missing the opportunity of a lifetime, Jesse’s mom did what almost any mom would do — knowing she would have to make the drive again to bring him home, Jesse’s mom picked him up at the airport and pointed the car toward New Jersey. The Penningtons made the 11-hour drive to The College of New Jersey where Team Kentucky was housed (coincidentally located on Pennington Drive) in time for Jesse to attend Opening Ceremonies. The drive, the distance and the time all became worth it on Tuesday with the look that swept across Pennington’s face when he and partner Michael Willard of Louisville were awarded their Gold Medals for the doubles competition. The pair posted two come-from-behind wins — 12-7 over Maryland and 13-5 over Pennsylvania to claim their Gold. Later the week Willard added another Gold Medal in singles. He fell behind 6-1 early against Texas, including getting bocced (giving up all four points) in the second inning, before reeling off 11 straight points to win 12-6 to advance to the finals. Pennington took Silver in his singles division.
Not surprisingly, the Kentucky gymnasts led the way in the medal count. What was surprising was that with two gymnasts in the the delegation that had World and USA Games experience, it was the one with neither that produced the biggest results. Oana Warren of Versailles brought home enough gold to fill Fort Knox after sweeping the medals in the Level 1 Gymnastics competition. Warren not only won Gold in her division in all five disciplines (floor exercise, vault, balance beam, uneven bars and all-around), but she recorded the highest score of any gymnast in any division in all five events. Three of her four preliminary scores topped 19.000 (on a 20-point scale), including a 19.500 on the vault. Warren’s more experienced teammates also performed exceptionally well. Danielle Blakeney of Erlanger grabbed three Gold Medals and two Silvers. The Golds included a tremendous recovery in the balance beam after she struggled in preliminaries. She also took Gold in the vault and floor exercise. Russellville’s Lee Dockins won two Gold Medals, two Silvers and a Bronze. Her Gold Medals included a 19.400 in the vault and a 19.350 in uneven bars in a routine one judge called the best she had ever seen.
Team Kentucky bowlers gave the gymnasts as strong a run for their medal-winning money as anybody could at the Games. Starting with the singles competition on Tuesday, Kentucky bowlers claimed six medals total. Amanda Browning of Taylorsville and Jeremy Simpson of Wittensville both claimed Gold in singles. Browning with a 295 series and Simpson with a 520 that included a third game of 198. Lexington’s Julia Steinman finished with a Bronze Medal in her division and Jason Finkey of London finished seventh. The doubles event brought Silver for both Kentucky teams. Browning and Steinman teamed to roll a 635, while Finkey and Simpson recorded a 752 series. All four Kentucky bowlers teamed up to earn the Silver Medal in the mixed team event with a 1,437 series.
While Kentucky swimmers weren’t quite as dominant as they had been at past Games, they definitely had their fair share of success. All four swimmers won at least one individual medal to go with the Gold they won in the 4×50-yard freestyle relay, and three of the four won multiple medals. Reba McDonald of Winchester won a fully matched set, with Gold in the 100-yard backstroke, Silver in the 200-yard breaststroke and Bronze in the 100-yard freestyle. More impressively, the schedule forced her to swim all three finals on the same day, with the 100 free and 200 breaststroke back-to-back. Nicholasville’s Kathleen Colliver was the only other swimmer to medal in all of her events. She took a Gold in the 100-yard backstroke and Silver in the 100-yard freestyle. Vahl Forsythe of Lexington was perhaps the team’s strongest swimmer. He won Gold in his division of the 100-yard backstroke, barely edging the second-place finisher. He took Silver in the 100-yard freestyle with a personal best and finished just .05 seconds ahead of third place. Forsythe was also on his way to a medal in the 100-yard butterfly, but an illegal finishing touch took him out of contention. Chris Willis of Owensboro claimed his individual medal — a Silver in the 50-yard breaststroke. He also placed 4th in the 50 back and 5th in the 50 free.
Like Kentucky’s gymnasts, the Kentucky golf delegation continued the state’s history of success at the national level. Individual golfer Eric Duncanson of Bardstown opened the three-day tournament with a tremendous 88 on a course he had never seen before. He followed that up with a 100 and then bounced back for a 96 to claim the Silver Medal, missing the gold by just one stroke. The Unified team of Tee Salinas and his father Tony from Prospect opened with their worst round of the 9-hole alternate shot tournament, carding a 63 on Monday, but rebounded with consecutive 51s to also claim a Silver Medal.
Fannie Stonestreet of Winchester claimed the lone track and field medal of these games. Stonestreet won the Silver Medal in her division of the 400-meter walk in a time of 2:46.37. She was on her way to no worse than a Bronze in the 800-meter walk, but broke stride just before the finish and was disqualified. Tony Mayes of Russellville was also on his way to a medal in the 1,500-meter walk but a stride break got him at the top of the home stretch on the final lap. He also finished sixth in his heat of the 800-meter walk. Casie Seifert of Lexington just missed a medal in both of her events finishing 4th in the shot put and 4th in her division of the 400-meter walk. She was just 6 seconds out of a medal in the walk. Travis Hines of Lexington placed fifth in his division of the 200-meter run and seventh in the 100-meter dash. As a team, the four placed 5th in their division of the 4×100-meter relay in a team-best time of 1:35.37.
Both the Team Kentucky basketball and flag football teams got off to hot starts in New Jersey. Basketball opened play on the Monday of the Games with a 41-8 victory over South Carolina and led by 26 at halftime. Flag football notched two big wins on the Tournament’s first day, beating Tennessee 46-0 and Alabama 45-6. Day 2 saw more wins for both teams with basketball knocking off Texas 41-14 and flag football posting a 44-6 victory over Colorado. Flag football closed round-robin play with a hard-fought 30-39 loss to Arkansas in their second game of the day. Basketball rolled on for one more day closing out their round-robin play with a 27-11 victory over North Carolina.
Both teams saw their early success land them in the toughest competitive division for medal round play.
For flag football, that meant a matchup with the team from New Jersey. Team Kentucky battled behind the stellar play of Kevin Craw and James Brown, but couldn’t hold off the home team, falling 18-22. The loss dropped them into the consolation round, but still left them with a chance to play for the Bronze Medal. What awaited was a rematch with Arkansas. Kentucky got on the board early after a long run by Craw set up a touchdown pass from AJ Gamble to Kevin Blevins. Kentucky followed that up with a long touchdown from Gamble to Brown to take a 12-0 lead. The defense held late to end the first half with a 12-8 edge. However an injury to Craw — who had been one of the team’s best players throughout the Tournament — and an athletic Arkansas team proved to be too much for Kentucky to overcome and Arkansas rallied to win 27-18. The loss left Kentucky with a 3-3 record and a fifth-place finish.
The basketball team face a tall task in the Medal Round, first with a matchup with Florida. The Florida team had just been selected to play in a showcase game against New Jersey the night before and was considered to be the top team in the division. Kentucky played a strong first half and trailed by just one at the break, 10-9. Florida was able to open it up late in the second half, however, to win 41-27. The loss put Kentucky in the Bronze Medal game. That tall task came in the form of the team from Massachusetts, which featured three of the tallest players at the Games. Kentucky got out of the gate slowly, falling behind 6-0, but rallied from that point to hold a 16-9 lead at the break. The tall trees of Massachusetts did their job in the second half. The lead changed hands several times from the four minute to the one minute mark, but Massachusetts took the lead for the last time with about a minute to go and a couple of key rebounds helped them hold on for the 32-29 victory. The loss dropped Kentucky to 3-2 on the tournament and in fourth place overall.
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“We’re thrilled for all the successes our athletes had at the USA Games,” said Special Olympics Kentucky Vice President of Programs and Team Kentucky Head of Delegation Kim Satterwhite. “All of our athletes worked so hard and gave such a tremendous effort at these games and they can all be very proud of their performance. In addition to how well they played, the entire state of Kentucky can be proud of they way they were represented in New Jersey. Our athletes carried themselves with a tremendous amount of dignity and class, were respectful of their opponents and showed great sportsmanship throughout the Games.”
Thank you to everyone who supported Team Kentucky through the one-year process between selecting the team and getting our athletes and coaches to the Games. It was a fantastic trip for everyone involved.