Written by: Maureen Kenyon, Treasure Coast Newspapers
Two Treasure Coast women — once shy and self conscious, now outgoing and confident — will represent the United States at the Special Olympics World Games, the flagship event of Special Olympics.
Cori Davis, of Palm City, and Kenyatta Johnson, of Fort Pierce, say their participation over the years in Special Olympics allowed them to find the courage to go for the gold in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, this year’s location for the World Games.
Davis, 18, is an equestrian, and Johnson, 40, is a golfer.
The World Games takes place every two years, alternating between Summer and Winter Games, similar to the Olympics and Paralympics. This year’s games are March 14-21, and it’s the first time the event will take place in the Middle East/North Africa region.
More than 7,000 athletes from 177 countries will compete in 24 events, including basketball, volleyball, cycling, equestrian, golf, gymnastics, powerlifting, sailing and swimming.
This year, Special Olympics Florida sent 22 athletes, coaches and Unified partners to the World Games. Unified partners are athletes without intellectual disabilities who compete alongside Special Olympics athletes to promote equality and inclusion.
Equestrian Cori Davis, of Palm City, prepares Jaye, one of her family’s horses, with help from riding instructor Patty Nelson at Davis’ home March 1, 2019, in Palm City. Davis will be traveling to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, to compete in the 2019 Special Olympics World Games, which begin March 14. (Photo: XAVIER MASCAREÑAS/TCPALM)
Cori Davis, equestrian
Davis was 8 when she saw a carousel for the first time.
“She saw the horses going up and down and she took off, running away from it,” said her father Dan Lewis.
But a few years later, after the family moved to Florida, Davis told her parents she wanted to ride a pony at Friday Fest in Port St. Lucie.
“We waited in line for about 30 minutes, figuring we’ll get right there, waste all this time and she’s not going to do it,” Lewis remembers. “The minute they told her, ‘Go ahead’ she went and jumped on a horse like she owned one.”
Davis was riding ponies for the next three hours.
Soon after, Dan and his wife, Jacque, took Davis for a guided horseback trail ride through Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Hobe Sound.
That’s all it took. Davis was hooked.
So when the family moved from Port St. Lucie to a ranch in Palm City, Davis got her own horse.
“We bought a house, we bought a lawnmower and we bought a little white horse for (Cori) and we found a young girl who would teach her, and that’s how it happened,” Jacque Lewis said.
The South Fork High School senior said she’s looking forward to getting a feel for the horse arena in Abu Dhabi. Although she was trained to ride Western style, she recently learned English style for the World Games
“I’m excited to see (Abu Dhabi),” she said. “This will be my first time in a different country, and I want to make a lot of new friends.”
When she returns from the World Games, Davis wants to start show jumping horses, which will be introduced soon to Special Olympics.
Cori Davis, an equestrian from Palm City, rides Jaye, one of her family’s horses under the watch of riding instructor Patty Nelson at Davis’ home March 1, 2019, in Palm City. Davis will be traveling to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, to compete in the 2019 Special Olympics World Games, which begin March 14. “An Emirates family is donating all the horses (for the competition),” Cori’s mother, Jacque Lewis, said, “so Patty’s been having her on a bunch of different horses.” (Photo: XAVIER MASCAREÑAS/TCPALM)
Physically, Davis can do anything.
“Her disability is speech apraxia, so she’s not limited physically,” Dan Lewis said. “Her comprehension level is down because comprehension and speech go hand-in-hand.”
For example, it might take Davis up to 500 times to master a task someone without a disability could master in 10 tries, Dan Lewis said.
“It’s repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition,” he said. “You don’t allow them to not do the work. But you put parameters up that safeguard them while they’re doing the work.”
Once Davis began riding horses, she started to believe in herself. She also began talking a lot more. Riding boosted her spirit.
“The reality was you started to see her confidence level transpose off the saddle into this, into that, into everything in her life,” Dan Lewis said. “Riding was the first thing she had control over in her life.”
Davis wants to attend Florida Atlantic University and study history. She also wants to travel to London — because it’s her middle name — Boston and Washington, D.C.
The young athlete — who’s also played soccer, basketball and been a gymnast — has advice for younger Special Olympics athletes: Keep working hard.
“When somebody tells me I can’t do this because I’m different, I say, ‘I’m the same person who’s been doing this for a long time. I’m no different than anyone else.’ ”
Kenyatta Johnson, golf
Johnson is a seasoned athlete and no stranger to the World Games.
Johnson, 40, competed at the 1999 World Games in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and the 2011 World Games in Athens, Greece.
“I hope I win gold, and hope I could meet a lot of different people from all over the country … and just enjoy the whole atmosphere,” Kenyatta Johnson, of Fort Pierce, said about competing in the upcoming Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Johnson was working on driving and putting Feb. 28, 2019, at Fairwinds Golf Course in Fort Pierce. (Photo: XAVIER MASCAREÑAS/TCPALM)
The Fort Pierce Central High graduate has been involved with Special Olympics for 28 years, joining in middle school when her father signed her up for the program.
“Me, I didn’t talk in school. I was quiet,” she said. “So when I joined, they knew I was kind of shy. I didn’t really say anything.”
But after her first World Games, Johnson blossomed.
“I started talking a little more, I was a little more outgoing,” she said. “My county coordinator used to say, ‘When you came back (from the World Games), you were a different person.’ ”
Kenyatta Johnson, of Fort Pierce, practices putting at Fairwinds Golf Course on Feb. 28, 2019, in Fort Pierce. Johnson will be traveling to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, to compete in the 2019 Special Olympics World Games, which begin March 14. (Photo: XAVIER MASCAREÑAS/TCPALM)
Johnson — a cook at Francis K. Sweet Elementary in Fort Pierce, where she’s worked for 15 years — also talks fondly of the “second mothers” she acquired because of Special Olympics.
“I can just go talk to them when I have problems and get opinions,” she said. “So coming up, I had what you’d call ‘other mothers.’ So Special Olympics is good, not only for the sports, but for learning about yourself and being around people where you can be yourself.”
Johnson also is a Special Olympics athlete-coach for track and basketball. She’s noticed some of the athletes have the potential to one day compete in the World Games, too.
“Some of (the track athletes) are really fast,” she said. “(The athletes) remind me of myself when I was young.”
Like Davis, Johnson is an all-around athlete who’s competed in speed skating, gymnastics and bowling, the latter earning her her first gold medal at the state level as well as a nomination to the 1999 World Games.
But for the past 15 years, Johnson’s focus has been golf.
At first, she perfected basic golf skills such as putting, chipping and pitching. After about five years, she moved to nine-hole unified golf and played with a partner. Then, she started playing on her own.
In Athens, Johnson earned her first gold medal in golf.
“It was me and this girl from Australia,” Johnson remembers. “We were neck-and-neck going into the last round. I just blew past her.”24 Pho
Johnson’s favorite part about the World Games is experiencing diverse cultures.
“I love seeing different people and their language,” she said. “I have friends all over because of the World Games.”
Johnson is hoping for another gold medal in Abu Dhabi, but it’s important just to have fun, she said.
“People say I put too much pressure on myself,” she said. “But as long as I go and have fun, maybe I’ll come back with something. Hopefully, a gold.”