How golf changed the life of a Special Olympics athlete and put her on the national stage

There is a strong argument that one of the most versatile athletes on the Florida coast is 36-year-old Special Olympics Olympian Amanda Posey of Jacksonville.

It is definitely one of the most ornate. Bussey has won 18 Florida State Special Olympics medals (seven gold, six silver, and five bronze) and over 30 medals when regional events are added.

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

But her ticket to the US Special Olympics in Orlando next year is golf, where she qualified under the alternative shot format, which combines a Special Olympics player and a family member or friend. Then they take turns hitting each hole for the team’s score.

In the case of Amanda Posey, her partner would be Hidden Hills member Jane Vercoten, a retired banker from Charlotte, North Carolina who had never imagined herself playing a sport on the national stage before she met Amanda—a match organized by Robin Lack, another Hidden Hills member. His son Ryan plays golf in the Special Olympics.

Lack, who is a volunteer on the Special Olympics management team for the Northeast Florida region, still isn’t sure to this day why he thinks Amanda and Jane would make a good team.

“I didn’t really know they would,” he said. “I just threw it in there. I thought Jane might be the caring type.”

Amanda was playing with her mother, but Julie Busey, a real estate consultant for Engel and Volkers, was worried that her job wasn’t giving her enough time to play and practice and asked Luck to help her find another partner.

Verkouten and her husband Steve Bona do not have children together (Bona has one son from a previous marriage) but she does view the relationship with Amanda Bussey as a mother and daughter or even an older sister and little sister.

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

“She’s a wonderful, happy person,” Vercoten said of Amanda. “She is so excited to play and she is 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 to the golf course. I would just describe her 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 due to spinal meningitis that nearly killed her when she was two years old. Her mother, Verkouten and other close family and friends can understand but Amanda communicates mostly with her eyes, her gestures and her smile – all of which speak volumes.

And less than a year after the 2022 US Special Olympics, Amanda is already counting down the days.

“June 5,” she said excitedly, pumping her arms in the air.

And while Amanda has excelled at multiple sports, golf is her favourite, for one major reason.

“It takes a long time,” she said.

Her mother explained.

“It takes longer to play golf than to play basketball or soccer,” she said. “This means that Amanda will spend more time doing something she loves.”

Happy baby, then questions

Julie Bussey reads all children’s books. She had long conversations with her doctor. I have taken all precautions before giving birth. She was more than ready for her firstborn baby Amanda, who came in at 7 pounds and 10 ounces on September 23, 1984, at Valley Medical Center in Fayetteville, North Carolina, near Fort Bragg, where her father, Larry, was a paratrooper with an 82nd Airborne.

For the first few weeks, friends and family feasted on Amanda’s dark brown eyes and dark, curly hair. Words like “awesome” and “beautiful” were music to the ears of her mother, who spent many hours cuddling a happy baby who smiled a lot, nursed excitedly and barely cried.

“When she was hungry or needed a change, she could make these little noises, a very subtle noise,” Julie Posey said. “She never cried at the top of her voice. It was a noisy sound, and when she was feeding or changing, she stopped. Everything was fine.”

But by the time Amanda turned four months old, her mom was starting to notice the little things. You’ve read enough to know the baby’s schedule: when they can lift their heads, when they can roll over or when they’ve tried to get on hands and knees to crawl.

Months passed without Amanda reaching those milestones. Her mother was tested at Walter Reed Military Hospital in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The doctors came up with nothing conclusive, other than Amanda, who had weak muscles and slow motor skills.

Julie Posey said they eventually diagnosed her with muscular dystrophy, “just so we could start some treatment.”

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

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

She became pregnant with her son Daniel (her daughters Rachel and Tiffany would follow), and all four children were born within five years.

It was a big and happy family.

Then every mother’s nightmare came dangerously close to being fulfilled.

Slipping away… then back

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

She quickly measured the child’s temperature: 105 degrees. Amanda was taken to Womack Medical Center in Fort Bragg, where measures were quickly taken to try to bring the raging fever under control.

There was little change the next morning. Julie Posey did not leave her child’s side but watched as she lay on her back, listless, barely moving, a terrible feeling began to pass through her body.

“I saw her leave me,” said Julie Posey. “I called the nurse and said, ‘I can see her go away…bring someone here.'” Do something.”

Doctors performed a spinal tap and started more powerful antibiotics. Julie Posey has been told the devastating news: Amanda may not survive today.

But also when Julie Posey finds out she has a tough little girl. Amanda held out…and slowly came back. She stayed in the hospital for two weeks before being discharged.

Julie Posey said another kid in the neighborhood had meningitis, but he never found out how Amanda contracted it.

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

Meningitis also slowed Amanda’s physical therapy and her schedule of crawling, walking, and talking.

However, it more than made up for lost time.

Catch up and being a kid

By the time Amanda was 5 years old, her motor skills were beginning to catch up with what was considered typical for a child of that age. Her mother moved her and her brother and sisters to First Coast in 1990 and soon after, Amanda made every major milestone on time: learning to ride a bike, swim, and more, keeping up with her siblings and other kids in the Atlantic Beach neighborhood.

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

“Physically, she caught everyone and there wasn’t anything the other kids could do that she couldn’t do,” Julie Posey said. “And we treated her as normally as possible. Her brother and sisters have always been great to her, and the kids in the neighborhood accepted her, once they learned to understand the challenges she faces with her hearing and her speech.”

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

“She had to clean her room, clean the table after dinner…all the other kids had to do,” she said. “Actually people would be surprised by this, but Amanda was the one who wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

The hard part was when the other Jolie Posey kids started attending Fletcher High School, getting their driver’s license and getting jobs after school. Amanda simply couldn’t engage in most teenage rites of passage.

The sport was one place where Amanda was not hampered. She’s been competitive in every sport she’s tried, but golf is what got her to the US Special Olympics, with Ryan Lack being the only ones of an estimated 1,200 Duval Special Olympics athletes to have qualified in golf, and among 17 statewide.

go for gold

Once Amanda started winning Special Olympics medals, there was no stopping her. And it got to the point where silver and bronze were no longer good enough.

“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 only going to be happy if she stands on the top notch to win the gold.”

Amanda Posey started playing golf 12 years ago when she sponsored the Players Championship at a special needs clinic at TPC Sawgrass. Her mother had no idea how good her daughter was, but it only took one swing to convince her.

“She started hitting the ball and it was like nothing else I’ve tried…she’s a natural athlete,” said Julie Bussey. “I kept thinking, ‘Wonderful’… one more thing she could do.”

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

This is where Verkouten came in. Then the two had to win a gold medal at the Florida Special Olympics and then go to the lottery system

They discovered in mid-June that Amanda and Fructen had succeeded. In Orlando next year, they will compete against more than 200 other golfers from the United States representing all 50 states.

“She loves the game and keeps getting better,” Vercoten said of Amanda. “She hits great shots on tees, but like any other golfer, she will have some good and bad shots, good and bad shots. We are both unpredictable that way. But she will play as much as she can get out there.”

“It’s tough,” Amanda agreed.

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

out alone

Amanda Posey moved out of her mother’s house five years ago and lives in 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. Her mother said she has three sons and a niece and is her “fun” aunt.

“She loves children and they have loved her right back,” said Julie Posey. “She is an adult but still a child at heart. That is why she loves sports so much.”

Golf may become the fastest growing sport for children and adults with special needs. Last spring, Amy Bokerstett of Paradise Valley Community College near Phoenix, already believed to be the first athlete with Down syndrome to play college sports on a scholarship, scored first another, playing in the college’s women’s national championships in Ormond Beach.

Modern sports psychologists who work with golfers stress staying in the moment, not worrying about results and throwing good and bad shots behind. This is how her daughter not only plays golf, but gets closer to life, said Julie Posey.

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

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

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

About Special Olympics

• The Northeast Florida Special Olympics area has more than 3,000 athletes – about 1,200 in Duval County.

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

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

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

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