After being on hiatus due to the pandemic, the Brightspot Unified Challenge made its much awaited return in conjunction with the Wells Fargo Championship Pro-Am.
Playing sports on a team has a wonderful way of bringing people together. This is the idea behind Special Olympics’ Unified Sports movement, which joins people with and without disabilities to compete on the same team. Playing Unified is a unique way to not only have fun and create friendships and connections that transcend the game itself, helping people grow in understanding and friendship and spreading the message of inclusion.
This guiding principle is the heart and soul of the Brightspot Unified Challenge, a multiday golf event that brings together championship-level golfers from the First Tee and Special Olympics along with wounded veterans. On the surface, it’s just a golf event. But if you spend even five minutes there, you will see it is far more meaningful than just a game.
I still keep in contact with all of the golfers I played with, and I enjoy seeing what they have done after the tournament. I actually got a call from one of my teammates, Chris Lussier, a Special Olympics athlete from Rhode Island, to congratulate me on being selected to compete in the PGA Tour Champions PURE Insurance Championship. Getting that call meant a lot to me, and I’m grateful to have met everyone there.
Despite a multiyear hiatus caused by the pandemic, the tone of the 2022 Unified Challenge was established from the start.
On Sunday, May 1, the golfers gathered at Brightspot headquarters for a welcome reception. During dinner, representatives from each group stood to discuss what the event meant to their organization. Clint Sanchez, Executive Director of the First Tee of Greater Washington, D.C., began the evening's remarks. He spoke of how proud he was of this particular group of First Tee students, how excited he is to see how they become changemakers in the future and how honored they all were to get to play in the event among such great company.
Next to speak was Dr. Timothy Shriver, Chairman of the Board of Special Olympics. Dr. Shriver asked all of the Special Olympics athletes to join him and share any personal sentiments. Roger Johnson, an athlete from Special Olympics Virginia, spoke of how when he was growing up as a young child with cerebral palsy he could have never dreamed of having opportunities such as the Brightspot Unified Challenge. Another golfer, Kody Conover of Utah, moved the crowd to tears as he spoke about playing in the memory of his late mother, Kitty Conover, who passed away in 2019.
To close the evening, retired Army Command Sgt. Major Thomas Capel stood up to speak on behalf of the 12 combat veterans in attendance. Sgt. Major Capel talked about not only fighting for freedom, but also for inclusion. “We fight for you,” he said, as he faced all of the athletes.
The next day, the players headed to nearby TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm to kick things off at the Monday Pro-Am of the Wells Fargo Championship. On a perfect 80-degree spring day in the nation’s capital, the golfers teed off alongside pros such as Morgan Hoffman, Bo Van Pelt and Johnson Wagner, among others.
I had the best time and having the opportunity to play on a professional course like TPC Potomac was a dream come true. Not only was it an absolute thrill to play with the veterans and players from the First Tee and Brightspot, but getting to play with a pro like Jared Wolfe was exciting! Looking forward to seeing him on the tour and to say I played with him!
Things got even more exciting at the close of day one, as the scores revealed that the foursome golfing with Bo Van Pelt—Nicholas Kimmel (USMC), Roger Johnson (Special Olympics Virginia), Diego DeJesus (The First Tee of Greater Washington, D.C.) and Richard Jones Jr. (Howard University)—had finished second overall in the Pro-Am.
The action continued on Tuesday, as the competitors traveled to The Club at Creighton Farms in Aldie, Virginia, for a Ryder Cup-style event. Broken into two teams, Stars and Stripes, the golfers competed in a team matchplay tournament playing two nine-hole matches.
The Stars entered the day with a two-point lead from Monday’s Pro-Am, but the Stripes came out firing and surged to the lead during the alternate shot matches. Despite a strong effort by the Stars on the back nine, the Stripes held on for a 15.5 to 11.5 victory.
To me, participating in the Brightspot Unified Challenge was an opportunity to be involved in, hands down, the best golf tournament on the planet. I went into this as not only a wounded veteran, but also as a father of a child with special needs. The love and support that people showed me was incredible. It was amazing listening to people’s stories and realizing that there are so many opportunities out there for my daughter. I was moved to tears more than once with joy and pride. I have definitely made friends that I will have for life from this event.
After wrapping up on the course, the group headed to nearby Topgolf to cap off the week’s events with a celebratory dinner. After two days of competition, the groups spent the evening laughing together as close friends.
Throughout the two days of competition, differences fade away, friendships form and players realize there are more things that unite us than divide us.