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Two homegrown athletes to compete at 2018 Special Olympics USA Games

Virginian-Pilot - 6/30/2018

June 30--When the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games begin today in Seattle, golfer David Sutton will be one of two athletes from Virginia Beach making the cross-country journey with Team Virginia in the hopes of winning a gold medal.

First, though, Sutton needs to do one thing he has never done before: get on an airplane. Is he excited?

"Yeah!" the 59-year-old exclaimed. "It's going to be fun."

For 50 years, the Special Olympics has been providing a place for athletes of all ages to compete in Olympic-type sports, developing fitness as well as building confidence and fostering a close-knit community. The Special Olympics USA Games began in 2006 and are held every four years.

This week, 46 Virginia athletes with intellectual disabilities, including Sutton and swimmer Josh Thacker, will make the journey to compete against more than 3,500 others from around the country.

Like Sutton, many of these athletes have been involved with the Special Olympics since childhood. He was 16 when he first got involved, thanks to his dad, Clarence, who encouraged David to go and meet new friends.

"Stuff like that was very important to me," Sutton said. "My dad really got me to introduce myself to a lot of people who helped me grow in what I want to do in life and teach me about myself."

Thacker, 36, who earned three top-three finishes earlier this year at the state games, couldn't be more excited to finally get the chance to impress on a larger stage.

Thacker, who has been involved with the Special Olympics since he was 8, is like most athletes. He loves everything sports-related and has a fiery competitive streak. As a big football fan, one of the sites he is most excited to see in Seattle is CenturyLink Field, home of the Seattle Seahawks.

"Josh is a great jersey collector," noted his mom, Florence Joyner, who is going to Seattle with her husband, John. "But he only likes to have the ones that are winning. One year, I bought him (the jersey of) one of the Redskins that was doing well ... He would wear it as long as they were doing well, but when they went downhill, he gave it back to me and said, 'I'm not wearing this.' "

That competitive fire has been apparent throughout Thacker's life, from his WWE memorabilia to the endless video games sitting on his shelves. But besides giving him the opportunity to compete, Special Olympics has given him something even more important: "Respect," he said.

The impact of the Special Olympics on both Thacker and Sutton can't be measured just in medals or accolades. It's in the lasting friendships that they've made and the lessons learned along the way.

For Sutton, the experience has been life-changing. As a soccer player and assistant coach at the Special Olympics WorldSummer Games in Raleigh, N.C., in 1999, he earned an education both on and off the field that he hasn't forgotten.

"Wayne McCoy was my first coach when I started out," he said. "He taught me about how to carry yourself on and off the field, what kind of character you can build on and off the field, what kind of people you can meet on and off the field. He taught me who I was and who I'm supposed to be. And what I'm supposed to do.

"When you're finished playing ... make sure you carry yourself the right way, make sure you talk to people when you come off the field, make sure you shake hands when you come off the field. ... That's going to be very important in your life. He pretty much changed the aspect of who I was. He taught me everything."

As a player and a coach, Sutton got the chance to grow as an athlete and as a leader.

"I was coaching when I was playing and when I was on the bench, too, so I was kind of doing both. (McCoy) left me that leadership where that took over what I was supposed to do and (led me) to who I am now."

Sutton takes his role as one of the program's elder statesmen seriously.

"I've been involved just about my whole life, since I started at 16," said Sutton. "Now I'm at the point where it's time for me to do other things to help other people and see if I can make them better, help them reach their potential of what they can do. That's my main goal now. "

A longtime lover of golf, Sutton decided to make the leap from team sports to the individual side. He wanted to experience the challenge of competing in a solo sport.

Leading up to the USA Games, which will be televised on ABC, ESPN2 and ESPN3, Sutton and his coach, Ann-Marie Cochran, have received enthusiastic support from around the area. From donated clubs to free rounds of golf and lessons, "the community has really come forward and been really supportive and we are grateful for that," said Cochran.

According to Cochran, the Ruby Tuesday where Sutton has worked for the past 18 years has treated him like a local celebrity. Now, Sutton said, all he wants to do is show up and do the best he can.

"I'm looking forward to having fun," he said. "Taking it little by little, trying not to let everything overwhelm me (to) where it's going to be detrimental to my game. I'm going to take it one hole at a time, have fun, meet new athletes, whatever comes about.

"Just be yourself, that's the main thing for me. Don't try to be something that doesn't fit."

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(c)2018 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

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