Terrebonne special athletes go for gold

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The year was 1989. Ronnie Lejaunie had never been to a Special Olympics event, but after watching a track meet held in Thibodaux, he saw something extraordinary in the athletes that he watched race around the track. He joined as a volunteer coach the very next year, and has been involved ever since.

“I saw how the athletes performed,” said Lejaunie, director of Terrebonne Parish Special Olympics. “They didn’t do it just for themselves, it was for a team. One of the oldest [teammates] was doing a run and got halfway, then tripped, fell and hurt his knees. The rest of the team just stopped and helped him. When I saw that I said ‘Well, this is something I want to do the rest of my life.'”

And that dedication helped to foster talent in Terrebonne, as six Special Olympics athletes recently brought home a handful of gold medals from the Special Olympic games in Lincoln, Neb., in July.

The softball team, comprised of Herman Boudreaux, Jerry Cooper, Marshall Olivier and Abel Olivier, had a 7-0 record in its division, winning gold. The youngest of Terrebonne’s group, Ashley Arcenaux, 17, received gold medals for both freestyle and backstroke in swimming. Cheneika Smith won gold for her performance in the 100-meter walk, silver for the 50-meter run and a fourth place ribbon for standing long jump.

The hard work the athletes put into their sports was worth its weight in gold, too.

“This all started last year,” Lejaunie said. “They had to go to a tryout in Pineville to be selected, and then I took them to practice every Thursday in Luling for four months. And it paid off because they all got gold medals.”

In addition to taking the athletes to practice, Lejaunie also heads various fundraisers to benefit Terrebonne Parish Special Olympics, which ultimately pays for registration fees and food when the athletes travel to events.

The next fundraiser, Lejaunie said, is a No-Tap Doubles Bowling Tournament at Creole Lanes on West Tunnel Boulevard on Nov. 7. The teams will consist of one special athlete, who is exempt from the entry fee, and one regular bowler. The entry fee is $20, and the deadline to turn in entry forms is Oct. 31.

Lejaunie encourages residents to attend the event, to keep Terrebonne Special Olympics going strong.

The Terrebonne athletes who went to Nebraska were recognized at a previous Terrebonne Parish Council meeting, and were praised for their efforts by the local government officials.

“Keep up the good work,” Councilman Alvin Tillman said. “And always remember that there’s a winner inside every one of you.”

But before a prospective athlete can become a winner, he or she must be at least 8 years old and meet the eligibility requirements outlined on the Special Olympics’ website.

“To be eligible to participate in Special Olympics, athletes must have an intellectual disability; a cognitive delay, or a development disability, that is, functional limitations in both general learning and adaptive skills,” the website reads.

The athlete must be independent, however.

“They can’t depend on anyone else,” Lejaunie said, who mentioned Smith, 30, has been selected to be in a drawing to participate in track and field events at the Special Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, in 2011.

“I’m really happy about it,” Smith said. “My mom called me when she found out about it and told me she was excited for me.”

Smith said she just started track and field sports a few years ago, and tried playing softball as well.

“I wasn’t very good at softball, so I did track,” she said, and added she was excited to go to the games in Nebraska and has no intentions of stopping training anytime soon.

“I’m going to keep doing it,” she said with a laugh. “I like meeting new people from the different parishes at the events.”

Smith said she still trains frequently in anticipation for Greece, and looks forward to finding out if she will be selected to go.

The Terrebonne Parish Special Olympics softball team – (from left) Marshall Olivier, Jerry Cooper, Herman Boudreaux and Abel Olivier pose for a picture after practice, preparing for the Special Olympics summer games held in Lincoln, Neb., in July. COURTESY PHOTO