Two extraordinary New Orleans athletes win at Special Olympics!
By Sarah Herndon, September 2018
Bringing home a medal from the Special Olympics USA Games means more to Alexis Hernandez than winning. For the 17-year-old from Chalmette, who has had to endure both mental and physical challenges since birth, it means overcoming stereotypes and embracing her disabilities.
“They might be big problems, but we make them look like little problems,” says her mom, Melissa Bruno. At the age of two, Alexis could barely walk several feet without falling because the bones in her leg rotated inward. She was also diagnosed with scoliosis and recently had her eardrum reconstructed and now wears hearing aids. Melissa says that they have seen a lot of doctors and have put in countless hours of physical, occupational and speech therapy.
Yet, Alexis’s disabilities have not hindered her, being one of 70 athletes chosen to represent Louisiana in the Special Olympics USA Games held in Seattle this past July. She competed in track and field, winning a silver in the 100m walk, a bronze in the softball throw and placing 7th in the 50m run. Out of those three events, Alexis feels most proud about her walk and says that the medal around her neck makes her happy.
The making of a champion
Standing tall at a little under four and a half feet (because of a growth disorder), Alexis barely reaches most of her competitors’ chests. “She can push herself physically- she’s our ‘Little Bit’,” Melissa says. With four other siblings all involved in sports, it would be hard for Alexis to not be competitive. Melissa keeps them active, believing that it “gives them good core values and makes them a stronger person.”
In addition to being in the Special Olympics program, which she started when she was eight, Alexis also competes in 5K races through the Youth Run Nola program. For the past two years, she has participated in the Crescent City Classic 10K and has always finished the race.
Alexis attended the Special Olympics Games with only her team, as it was too expensive to fly out all seven of her family members. A delegation of 130 men and women represented Louisiana, which also included coaches and partners. Casey Minton, Director of Communications and Marketing for Special Olympics Louisiana, was also present at the Games and was amazed at the overwhelming turnout from the Seattle community. “It’s great to go there and compete, but it’s even better to go there and compete and have someone rooting for you,” Casey says.
A golden week
Candy Breaux always knew that her son Ty was a solid swimmer, but she never imagined that he would come this far and compete in the USA Games in Seattle. Ty, who has autism, started swimming competitively with JoJo’s Hope, an adaptive swim team, back in 2002. “Usually, his mind is always racing, but when he gets in the water, that’s his relaxing time, and he’s not trying to get his thoughts out- it’s just him and the water. He is completely focused,” Candy says.
Now the 19-year-old from Gentilly has not only competed in the USA Games but has brought home medals. Ty won gold in the 4x50m freestyle relay as well as a silver in the 200m freestyle and a 4th place in the 100m backstroke. He was also invited to swim in a 200m high-performance race- the fastest swimmers in the country- and placed 6th overall. Ty felt like his best race was his 200m freestyle because he was able to get into a rhythm and maintain a good pace. He actually started out in last place, says Candy, but was able to pull ahead when the other swimmers got tired.
“We are extremely proud of him. He had the time of his life, and I am so happy that he got to go and make new friends and compete,” says Candy, who was not able to accompany Ty to Seattle. She was still able to cheer him on during his high-performance race which was televised on ESPN, one of the event’s sponsors.
A bright future ahead
With the USA Games behind him, there is now a chance for Ty to be selected to represent the United States in the World Games in Dubai next year. “I plan to do that one no matter what,” Candy says. “I figured, Seattle is great, but if he makes it to Dubai, I definitely want to go there. It’s exciting to think about.”
Regardless of whether he gets picked to go to the World Games, Ty plans to keep up with his swimming and will be attending Delgado Community College this fall. He also says that he might like to be a coach to younger kids and tell them stories of his experiences as a competitive athlete.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics Louisiana with its theme “Light Up Red for Inclusion!” There will be over 170 landmarks throughout the world, including the New Orleans Superdome lighting up red for the celebration. The Special Olympics organization has worked hard to spread their message of love and inclusion for those with intellectual disabilities. Casey found it to be very poignant watching the enthusiasm of family and friends of the athletes in Seattle.
“It really was wonderful seeing the pride in these families who have always been told that their child can’t do something, to then witness firsthand that they can, and they can do it well.”
Sarah Herndon is a local New Orleanian and freelance writer. She writes regularly for Nola Family magazine. Read Sarah’s article “A League of Their Own: Sports for the Differently Abled.“