Tupelo Special Olympian finds winning pace at Seattle games
TUPELO, Miss. (AP) — Gregory Hutson had no doubts.
He knew he was going to come home from the USA Special Olympics with a bright, shiny medal.
“I’m going to Seattle to win a gold medal,” he told his family, said his dad Greg Hutson.
The 28-year-old Tupelo man with Down syndrome, who had been training for a year to compete in freestyle and backstroke, did exactly that as part of Mississippi’s team in July.
“I sure did,” Gregory Hutson said as he displayed his gold medal with pride at the NMMC Wellness Center in Tupelo where he did much of his training.
Gregory Hutson, who grew up in Memphis and Hardin County, Tennessee, started swimming when he was 4 years old. After his family moved to Tupelo, they checked out the Challenger League organized by Tupelo Parks and Recreation, thanks to an invitation from the Rosenthal family.
Challenger League is open to those with physical and mental disabilities ages 5 and up, said Leigh Ann Mattox, who oversees the program and served as the coach for Mississippi’s Special Olympics swim team. The Challenger League offers basketball, softball and soccer. It has been a Tupelo tradition for decades.
“It lets them be a part of a team,” Mattox said.
Each summer, Mattox takes a group of Challenger League athletes to the Mississippi Special Olympics. Hutson and the other members of the Mississippi team qualified for the USA Games in Seattle at the 2017 Mississippi Special Olympics.
The Mississippi swim team had four members, Gregory Hutson, Gregory Means of Moss Point, Jaycee Collins of Meridian and Tracy Galey of Vicksburg. Mattox organized four group practices for the team in addition to their individual training. Gregory worked out in the pool and the weight room two to three days a week. He also had extra lessons with instructor Alex Knight to work on his technique.
“He never complained,” Greg Hutson said.
The USA Special Olympics in Seattle brought together 5,000 athletes and 10,000 volunteers. When Gregory and the rest of the Mississippi team reached Seattle, they stayed together as athletes, participating in the opening ceremony and living in dorms.
“They just blossomed,” Greg Hutson said. “You could see their confidence grow. They’ve all said they’ll be friends forever.”
Gregory had a huge cheering section. His dad and his fiance Christy Young, his mom and stepdad, Joe and Felicia Alsup of Counce, brother Sam Alsup and his grandparents. Sister Ali Alsup cheered from home.
“He had a big entourage,” Greg Hutson said.
Mattox and all the other coaches had to step away and watch from the stands when the athletes were escorted to the pool to compete.
“I’m super proud of how well they trained and how they prepared,” Mattox said.
Each of the Mississippi swim team members participated in the 25-meter freestyle and 25-meter backstroke in their respective divisions and as a team in the 4×25-meter freestyle relay, Mattox said.
Gregory had to overcome a surprise. The pools Gregory Hutson trained in all were shallow enough for him to touch, but in Seattle, the pool was deeper than he expected.
“He had seven or eight seconds to figure it out,” how to adjust his starting position off the wall, Greg Hutson said.
Gregory Hutson narrowly missed bronze in the back stroke. In the freestyle, he was competing against swimmers doing diving starts. But all the work in the pool and the weight room paid off. His start was as strong as the divers. He shaved a second off his personal best in his winning run.
“It was very exciting,” Greg Hutson said.
As a team, Mississippi brought home 23 gold medals, two silvers and six bronze. All four swimmers earned at least one medal.
“It was just icing on the cake,” Mattox said.
Beyond the medals, Gregory Hutson and his teammates grew in their sense of independence. He is already expanding his skill set, working on breaststroke for the next competition.
“It was a life-changing experience for us,” Greg Hutson said. “It was so much more,” than just a race.
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