Twenty-eight New Iberia athletes, partners and coaches have poured their hearts into going to the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games in New Jersey next month and possibly win their way to the world games next year.

“We’ve been practicing for five years,” said Cindy Landry, head tennis coach and director of the Iberia Parish Special Olympics. “Some of our athletes came from not being able to hit the ball, to completing full games.”

Landry has been working in special education for more than 30 years as a P.E. coach, she said.

She’s also the organizer of the area’s Project UNIFY, which puts Special Olympic athletes with and without intellectual disabilities together with partners who play with them on the field in games such as bowling, flag football, tennis and golf.

Tristen Louviere, 17, a Catholic High School student, is one of the partners for the golf. He said he first became interested in participating in the Special Olympics working with Landry giving swimming lessons.

Louviere has been golfing for a little more than two years, he said, and, so far, his best score is a solid 76. He said he enjoys working with athlete Jimmy Moon, even though they only get to work together about once a month, and the athletes in other sports with whom he sometimes helps.

“It makes me feel good when I see the kids get that smile on their face after they get something they worked so hard for,” Louviere said.

Another set of partners in the UNIFY program is Gerald “Jerry” LaSalle, 71, and Elizabeth “Betty” LaSalle, 72. These veteran volunteers have been involved in the Special Olympics since 1998.

“We have a special needs daughter,” Jerry LaSalle said, “She’ll be 46 in June. She started in ’98 in bowling and that’s when we started volunteering.”

Jerry LaSalle will be partnered with Joshua Racca in doubles bowling. He also volunteers for the Knights of Columbus, he said, because, “once you start volunteering, you can’t stop.”

Meanwhile, Betty LaSalle will be partnered with Bobbie Pontiff of Houma. The couple spends up to five hours a week working with the athletes, which, she noted, is only possible because they are both retired.

“If we had to have full time jobs we’d never be able to do this,” she said.

Betty LaSalle is retired from her job at AT&T. Her husband is a retired oil field man, where he said he worked as a drilling consultant for years.

Nationals aren’t all about the athletics, Jerry LaSalle said, there are plenty of other activities the athletes get to take part in that they enjoy.

“There’s a party where they get to mix and mingle with other athletes from across the U.S.,” he said.

There’s also a number of things the athletes get to do outside of the national games, said Katie Botts. The athletes got to attend the LSU, Alabama game, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Sun Belt basketball championship game and even WrestleMania XXX in New Orleans this year.

Botts first became interested in the special education when she was a peer tutor in high school, helping children with physical and intellectual disabilities in P.E. Years later, she said, she returned to special education as an interpreter for deaf students.

She coaches flag football with fellow educational interpreter Rebekah Russo and Ted Sandoz, whose son plays on the national team. She also helps coordinate the UNIFY athletes, she said.

One of the program’s main goals, she said, is to get more children involved with the partnership program because it shows the Special Olympic athletes they can perform just as well, or even better, than their partners.

“Over the last two years, these (athletes) have grown to be my kids,” she said. “I don’t know what I’d do without them. They make me whole.”

“You connect with all of them,” agreed assistant tennis coach Stephanie Manuel, a 14-year veteran of the program and a retired U.S. Air Force technical sergeant.

Manuel recalled watching a 10-year-old athlete she had been working with receive two medals, a gold and silver.

“The look on her face …” she trailed off. “She could speak, but she had very limited social skills. The look on her face when she was on the podium let you know how much fun she had: the expressions, the smiles.”

After the leaving the Air Force, she went to work as an adaptive P.E. coach, working with intellectually disabled.

Some of her students were already participating in the Special Olympics with amazing sports abilities, so she decided to “jump right in.”

“I love my job,” she exclaimed. “It doesn’t get any better than this. They love it. Every year, they ask, ‘How many months left?’

“Some of the parents don’t take them anywhere,” she continued. “This is a big thing in their life. I’m just glad to be a part of it.”

The U.S. National Special Olympic games will be held June 13-21 in New Jersey. The athletes will stay at Princeton University for the duration of the games.

Those who perform well, Landry said, could be invited to the world games in Los Angeles in 2015, noting that she’s accompanied athletes to previous games in Ireland, Greece and China.

To learn more about the upcoming Special Olympics or if you’re interested in Project UNIFY visit their websites at www.2014specialolympics.org and www.specialolympics.org.projectunify.aspx.

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