Golf Brings Out Gold-Medal
Spirit For USA Special Olympian
August 15, 2008
By Erica Goodman, USGA
Mike Sheperd looked to his son, Ian, and shrugged,
"It's all up to you, buddy."
All week, the par-3, eighth hole at Shanghai's Tianma
Country Club had been kind to the elder Sheperd. But now
with the team in gold-medal contention at the 2007 Special
Olympics World Games, Mike suddenly caught a case of nerves
and flubbed his tee shot.
Now it was all up to his son.
|Ian Sheperd, left, won his second
Special Olympics gold medal in golf. (USGA)|
The Sheperds were matched with a pair representing
China, the home team. The all-star spirit, however, was
with Ian, who had won a gold medal in skiing three years
ago. No stranger to championship pressure, Ian used his
patience and precision to knock his tee shot 5 feet from
the flagstick. The perfectly executed stroke enabled Ian
and Mike Shepard to bring home gold for Team USA.
Forty years ago, the Special Olympics torch, dubbed the
"Flame of Hope," illuminated the possibility for
millions of people with intellectual disabilities to learn
and grow through competitive sports. The biennial World
Games spotlight the courage, character, and dedication of
these individuals. Now a two-time World Games gold
medalist, Ian epitomizes the virtues of the competition,
having accomplished more as an athlete than people twice
his age despite his intellectual disability.
His interest in golf was sparked out of curiosity and
the desire to try new things. When he realized Special
Olympics Rhode Island offered golf, he jumped at the chance
to add the game to his already vast repertoire of athletic
pursuits, which included basketball, skiing and sailing.
Golf has become another vehicle for Ian's personal
"It is competition against yourself," said his
father Mike, who became a USGA Member after volunteering at
the 2006 U.S. Women's Open at Newport (R.I.) Country Club.
"It is something different for Ian than a team sport
where he can work to better himself."
Ian has played golf for more than six years. His
introduction to the game and skills development took place
at Button Hole short course and learning center. An emerald
jewel in urban Providence, R.I., Button Hole was a former
trash site converted to a junior-friendly golf course
through a renewal project. The organization encourages all
to play, regardless of background or ability, and has
hosted spring and summer golf lessons for Special Olympic
athletes since its opening in 1999. The United States Golf
Association has supported the organization, awarding more
than $426,000 to fund the course's construction and
programming for disadvantaged juniors.
After practice and preparation at Button Hole, Ian then
partnered with his father in competition. Golf is one of
numerous unified sports in which a Special Olympics athlete
is matched with an able-bodied partner. Pairings are often
with family members but can also be community volunteers
and mentors. In his father, Ian has found the ideal
"[We] have fun playing golf," explained Ian,
"and he teaches me a lot."
That education works both ways. "Ian has taught me
patience," said Mike.
The World Games experience in Shanghai not only improved
their golf games, but the bonding between father and son
grew even greater.
The Sheperds epitomize the true spirit of the game -
honesty, integrity, perseverance - on and off the
"They did as much good for Chinese-American
relations as a room full of ambassadors," said Marcus
King, general manager of Sand Point Country Club and
captain for Team USA. "Their modesty was exemplary.
They truly let their golf clubs do the talking."
When the final match concluded, the Sheperds shook hands
with their opponents, patting them on the back and sharing
one final moment of camaraderie.
As he reflected back on the competition, Ian, like any
competitor, thought about shots he left out on the course.
What about his greatest obstacles? It's one shared by many:
not hitting the ball in a water hazard.
In the end, however, the benefits clearly outweigh the
challenges and Ian and his father will continue to practice
at Button Hole with hopes of qualifying again to defend
their title at the 2011 Summer Games.
As Ian said, "[golf] is quite a game."
Erica Goodman is a USGA Fellow based in Colorado
Springs, Colo. E-mail her with questions or comments at