Athlete and Coach of the Year Awards Go To Pair of Western Kentuckians
Owensboro athlete Jennifer Hamilton and Murray/Calloway County coach Leigh Toby were honored as the 2018 Special Olympics Kentucky Athlete and Coach of the Year during lunch presentations at the Special Olympics Kentucky State Leadership Conference on Saturday, January 19, in Louisville. The awards are presented each year to the athlete and coach who best exemplify the ideals of Special Olympics
Hamilton, 38, has been a Special Olympics athlete for 22 years. She competes in basketball, bowling, softball and track and field. Last summer, Hamilton competed at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games with the Owensboro-based basketball team that represented Team Kentucky. She was the only female player on the team and was a top contributor at guard for the team that went undefeated in pool play and earned a bronze medal. It was the second trip to the USA Games for Hamilton, who won a basketball gold medal with the Team Kentucky women’s team at the 2010 Games in Lincoln, Neb. She was also part of the Special Olympics USA team that won a gold medal at the 2007 Special Olympics World Games in Shanghai, China.
Special Olympics Daviess County Local Coordinator Kim Johnson, who nominated Hamilton says of her, “Jennifer demonstrates the characteristics of sportsmanship, courage, respect and personal responsibility. She is gracious when her team wins and a good sport when her team does not, and she is the first to shake hands with her opponents either way. She works hard to excel and is constantly asking for feedback from her coaches on how she can improve her skills and contribute to the team. She is always kind and respectful to coaches, volunteers and other athletes and demonstrates a quiet leadership in the Daviess County program. She has developed positive relationships with athletes and coaches across the state.”
Jeff Johnson, who has coached Hamilton both locally and in the USA and World Games added, “During my coaching career, Jennifer has demonstrated the greatest willingness of any athlete that I have ever worked with to develop her individual skills and learn how to make a greater contribution to the team. Hers is the first name that comes to my mind when I think of the phrase ‘Spirit of Special Olympics.’”
In addition to competing with Daviess County Special Olympics, Hamilton also regularly supports local fundraising programs for the organization.
Hamilton has worked at Owensboro Health for 11 years. She is the first athlete from Owensboro to be named Athlete of the Year.
Toby has been a coach in the Murray/Calloway County Special Olympics program for seven years, coaching basketball, bocce, soccer and softball. She also serves as a bowling Unified partner where she competes alongside a Special Olympics athlete, and volunteers with the Murray Rockets track and field team.
Special Olympics Kentucky Western Kentucky Regional Director Laura Miller, who runs the Murray/Calloway County program, nominated Toby, saying, “In three of our four sports seasons, Leigh trains with athletes twice a week. And in the one season she doesn’t coach, she competes as a Unified partner. She schedules scrimmages for all of her teams and makes sure that all of her teams participate in every tournament they can. She has also served as a mentor during our get fit classes and supported athletes in achieving their personal fitness goals.”
According to Miller, Toby also draws people to support the program.
“When I think about our coaches and chaperones and how they got involved, I realize most of them were friends with Leigh first and then became involved with Special Olympics,” Miller said. “Her love for these athletes is inspiring and I often look at her selflessness with amazement.”
And Toby’s effect on her athletes goes beyond the playing fields.
“She believes that it is important for all of our athletes to have experiences in the community and times to hang out with friends,” Miller continued. “So whenever there is a Murray State game, Leigh has been known to load up her car and take a group to the game, making sure that nobody gets left out. She sometimes makes two or more trips to get athletes and get them to the games. If you were to ask the majority of our athletes who their best friend is, I have no doubt they would say ‘Leigh Toby.’”
Jeff French, who is a step-parent of an athlete and who also coaches in the Murray/Calloway County program supported Toby’s nomination, saying, “I believe that being a coach is not just about training an athlete but it is also about the heart, compassion and devotion you have to our athlete, and Leigh Toby displays that more than anyone I have ever witnessed.”
In addition to being named the state’s Coach of the Year, Toby was nominated for the 2018 Special Olympics North America Coach of the Year Award.
She is a case manager at Community Alternatives of Kentucky in Murray.
Nominations for the 2019 Athlete and Coach of the Year Awards will open in November and be due in early December. For more information about the awards or about how to nominate a deserving athlete or coach, contact Kelli Firquin at 502-695-8222 or [email protected].