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West Valley City Journal

Special Olympics TopGolf: Championing inclusion for all athletes

Oct 09, 2023 03:46PM ● By Julie Slama

The object: to hit the target the most.

The purpose: So much more.

Eighty Special Olympians with intellectual disabilities paired with partner athletes, were warming up for the Special Olympics TopGolf Championship.

“The athletes are practicing their accuracy, but they’re also developing skills and forging friendships,” said Haley Nall, Special Olympics director of special events. “It’s just a lot of fun.”

It’s also part of a national partnership with TopGolf that provides Special Olympic teams access for weekly two-hour practices as well as hosting the tournament. More than 30 locations are holding state championships.

The Special Olympics TopGolf Championship embraces inclusion and access for athletes, Nall said.

The introduction of TopGolf for Special Olympics comes on the heels of the launch of unified golf for middle school students that was held in South Jordan in the spring 2022.

At the Midvale championship, teams, age eight and up, were hitting the ball off the deck aiming for the targets. They were coached by volunteers.

Hillcrest High 2019 graduate Tanner Cluff jumped at the opportunity to try a new sport, despite needing left-handed clubs for his 6’8” frame.

“I like that this gives me a challenge,” he said. “I can do different sports for every season.”

Cluff, who won numerous medals in unified sports in high school and at the University of Utah, played for Real Salt Lake’s unified team. He plays football, soccer and bocci ball with Special Olympics.

“I’m trying to see how many points I can get by hitting the markers. It’s been harder on the top level than the bottom level because the launch in every bay is different and I never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I’m making new friends here at the same time.”

Cluff made friends with his partner, Keaton Phillips, who just moved to Utah nine months ago. Previously, Phillips volunteered with Special Olympics in Florida.

“I love the unique energies that everybody has,” he said. 

Prior to the TopGolf practices, Phillips played golf once on a traditional course.

“This is challenging. I didn’t think it would be as challenging at TopGolf. We struggled through it for a couple of weeks, but we’ve gotten a lot better,” he said. “We’re trying to get more distance and accuracy. We have a bit to go, but it’s fun.”

A few bays down the Cox sisters from Murray were ready to compete.

Viewmont Elementary sixth-grader Livvy partnered with her sister, Bree, a junior at Murray High.

“I like to volunteer because it’s fun interacting with kids with special needs,” said the younger Cox sister, who was a partner track athlete as well.

Bree Cox, who has Down syndrome and performs with Murray’s drill team, was game to try golf.

“It’s fun,” she said. “I love it because I can do it with my sister.” λ