Since the Special Olympics World Games first moved out of the United States for the 2023 Games in Dublin, Ireland, the number of Kentucky athletes who have gotten the opportunity to compete on the World level has been much smaller than the large groups that travelled to the Games in places like North Carolina and Connecticut. That number has been as low as one (2019) and as large as 16 (2007), but we’ve maybe never sent a group as unique as the two athletes, one Unified partner and two coaches from Kentucky who participated in the 2023 World Summer Games June 17-25 in Berlin, Germany. Of the two athletes, Lexington golfer Wake Mullins was making his first ever trip to the World Games. His counterpart, Russellville rhythmic gymnast Lee Dockins was making her FIFTH World Games appearance in five different countries and was already the most decorated World Games athlete in Special Olympics Kentucky history if not in the world. Dennis Gaines, Wake’s Unified partner in the 18-hole Unified alternate shot competition was the first Unified partner Kentucky had sent to the World Games since Doug Bagley partnered with his sister Emily Bagley in bowling at the 2003 Games. Of the two Kentucky coaches heading up sports for Special Olympics USA, gymnastics head coach Mary Fehrenbach was making her seventh trip to the World Games, while Special Olympics USA head swimming coach Debbie Ogden was travelling to the World Games for the first time.
And whether they were veterans or representing Kentucky and the USA for the first time, each one did so in a way that made us all proud.
The trip got underway in the early hours of June 10, with Ogden departing from Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport near her home in Ft. Wright and the rest of the team meeting in Lexington to take off. All five met the rest of the Special Olympics USA team in New York, where they enjoyed a team dinner and incredible sendoff event before making the trip to Germany.
While the team landed in Berlin, their initial stay was short as Special Olympics USA was assigned to Bremen, Germany, about four hours east of Berlin on the Weser River as their Host Town. The host Town program is designed to give athletes and coaches the opportunity to acclimate to the new country and time zone before they compete. It also gives them a chance to enjoy various cultural activities. In Bremen, Special Olympics USA met with local dignitaries, toured local churches and museums and visited the Bremen waterfront during their three-day stay. Then it was off to Berlin for the Games!
The team arrived in Berlin on June 16, a day ahead of what was an absolutely stunning Opening Ceremony. Finally, with the World Games cauldron ablaze, it was time for competition to begin!
It was the newcomers who would get the first taste of competition with Mullins and Gaines teeing off in their opening of four rounds on Monday, June 19. The pair, who started their round on the back nine at Bad Saarow Golf Course all week, opened with their best nine holes of the tournament, carding a 39 before closing with a 48 on their second nine for an opening-day 87. The round put them in great shape to compete in the event’s top flight.
On Tuesday at the Games, Mullins and Gaines had another tremendous start, shooting 40 on their opening nine and improving to a 46 on the second nine for a total of 86. It would prove to be their best round of the tournament, secured their spot in the top flight and put them in solid medal contention.
But Tuesday truly belonged to Dockins. Making only her second World Games appearance as a rhythmic gymnast (she competed in artistic gymnastics in 2007, 2011 and 2015) Dockins dominated her division in the all-around competition. Led by a 15.545 in the ball, Dockins scored 58.200 to win Gold in the all-around. It was her first rhythmic gymnastics all-around Gold Medal at the World Games. She won Bronze in Abu Dhabi in 2019. It was her third all-around Gold overall, after winning Gold in Athens in 2011 and Los Angeles in 2015.
On Wednesday, Mullins and Gaines headed back to Bad Saarow for round three. And that was the day that the course decided to get nasty. Several of the the Nick Faldo-designed course’s more than 130 bunkers tormented Mullins and Gaines on their opening nine and the pair made the turn in an uncharacteristic 50. They did rally on their second nine, however, firing a 43 for their best trip around that side of the week. Their third-round 93 left them in the Bronze Medal position, 14 shots out of second place.
Dockins also returned to the mat on Wednesday for the individual event finals and she solidified her legacy as one of the greatest gymnasts in Special Olympics history. In another dominating display, Dockins swept the event finals to go with her Gold in the all-around competition making it a clean sweep of all five Gold Medals in her division. It was the third time in her incredible career that she had earned five medals at a World Games (2015 in Los Angeles and 2019 in Abu Dhabi) and the first that she had won all Gold at a World Games. The five Golds brought her overall World Games medal count to an incredible 22 through all competitions.
With Dockins’ competition complete, Thursday was all about Mullins and Gaines’ final round. The pair got off to a quick start with a par on their first hole and even added a birdie in their first nine, but the Bad Saarow bunkers took another chunk out of the pair, and they got to the turn at 47. The closed with another 43 on their second nine for a final round 90, but their last hole in Germany will stay with them for a long time.
Mullins and Gaines (Mullins’ stepfather) started playing together as a Unified team in 2010. They won gold at their first State Golf Tournament. They continued to practice and improve. Wake played on the Henry Clay High School golf team. The pair competed in the 2018 and 2022 Special Olympics USA Games, where they earned a pair of Silver Medals. Despite the fact that Wake could play in individual golf events locally, the two continued to compete as a team with the dream of reaching the World Games. So, they stepped to the tee of their final hole at the World Games knowing that it would be their last as partners and that when they returned to Kentucky, Wake was headed to individual stroke play and Dennis would be his caddy. And golf – as it sometimes does – gave them a little gift. Wake hit the tee shot well down the fairway and easily in play. Dennis knocked his approach shot close enough to give them a chance and then Wake stepped up and rolled in a 20-footer to close out their World Games — and their Unified golf career — with a birdie.
Their four-day total of 356 was good enough for the Bronze Medal in the tournament’s top flight.
On the coaching front, Ogden’s swimmers grabbed five medals at the Games, including a silver by Florida’s Gina Grant in Open Water Swimming on the first day of competition at the Games. Grant also claimed Special Olympics USA’s lone swimming Gold in the 1,500-yard freestyle.
Including Dockins’ five Gold Medals, Fehrenbach saw her gymnasts grab 19 total medals – 11 in rhythmic gymnastics and eight in artistic gymnastics. Those included 11 Gold Medals.
Kentucky’s athletes had a few days to tour Berlin and cheer on their fellow athletes before the Games came to a close on June 25 with a family reception at the US Embassy in Berlin followed by a rousing Closing Ceremony at dance party in front of Berlin’s famous Brandenburg Gate. Little did they know their adventure wasn’t quite over yet.
The Kentucky crew’s trip from Berlin back to Newark on Monday was uneventful, but that’s where things got interesting. Bad weather and previous flight cancellations throughout the northeast, however, caused them to be stranded there overnight. Ogden managed to make it out of Newark back to Northern Kentucky on Tuesday, but the remaining four weren’t quite so fortunate. When it became clear that they wouldn’t get out of Newark on Tuesday either, the crew grabbed an Uber to JFK Airport in New York for what they hoped would be a trip home on Wednesday. Three possible opportunities to get out of JFK Wednesday didn’t work out, the quartet hopped a train to Grand Central Station and then an Amtrak to Baltimore. And that is how – on Thursday – we welcomed our heroes back to Kentucky after a flight from Baltimore to Louisville. They literally had a Planes, Trains and Automobiles experience on their way back. But their luggage WAS inexplicably waiting for them when they returned.
A two-hour World Games highlight show aired following the Games on ABC. You can go back and watch it on ESPN3.
The next World Games will take place in 2025 when the World Winter Games will visit Turin, Italy (Torino for you 2006 Winter Olympics fans). For more information about the Special Olympics World Games or about Kentucky’s participation in the Games, contact Trish Mazzoni at 502-695-8222 or [email protected].