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Unified partners

Justin Hanson-Simmons (left) and Ryan Spencer pose for a photo with their medals at the national golf tournament they competed in in New Jersey. (Contributed)

Justin Hanson-Simmons and his uncle Ryan Spencer had the opportunity to do something as a Special Olympics golfing duo that few others have the chance to do.

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Hanson-Simmons, 20, and Spencer, 36, were one of only two unified partner teams to represent Minnesota at the 2013 Special Olympics North America Golf Invitational in October at the Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club in Galloway, New Jersey. A total of 176 athletes from around the United States and Canada competed in the invitational.

“It was a great opportunity,” said Spencer, who works as a law enforcement officer in Orono. “It was a lot of fun to go out there and see everyone compete.”

The unified partner event combines traditional Special Olympic athletes and a partner without a disability for a nine-hole round in an alternate-shot format.

Hanson-Simmons and partner Spencer have been competing together in Special Olympics events as a unified partner group for two years.

Unified partner events often give athletes the opportunity for extra coaching on the golf etiquette and play their team coaches might not always have the chance to give. Alexandria Special Olympics coach Karyn Sportel said Spencer is dedicated to helping Hanson-Simmons while they golf together.

“He has really come a long way in the last few years,” she said about Hanson-Simmons’ golf game. “Part of that is because his uncle takes him out on weekends and during the summer. It’s not just our practice time.”

The two began golfing together when Spencer would come to visit Hanson-Simmons’ family in the Alexandria area. During many of his visits in warmer months, they and other family members would enjoy a round of golf.

“The family is pretty heavy into golfing and going and just spending time that way,” Spencer said.

Usually the golfing duo play in about two Special Olympics events every season, but this year they were selected as the Alexandria team that would play in the North America Golf Invitational.

The golfers noticed the Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club course was challenging, but also very scenic. Hanson-Simmons said being one of only two teams from Minnesota at the invitational was a fun experience.

“It was pretty tough,” he said. “The greens were nice and smooth and the fairways were smooth. It was a really pretty sight.”

Spencer said one of the perks to competing in the national event was the extra golf officials that were on the course. It was easy for the golfers to focus on their game when they had caddies and rules officials on the course to help them out.

“It was a real good time and made it easy to go out and just focus on your golf game,” Spencer said.

About two years ago, Hanson-Simmons asked Spencer to be his unified partner. Before moving to the unified partner event, Hanson-Simmons had competed in the Special Olympics skills and nine-hole events. Hanson-Simmons’ grandmother, Kathy Hanson, often notices Spencer will help coach while they are golfing as a team.

“If Justin is doing something wrong, he’ll let him know,” Hanson said.

The practices for the Alexandria Special Olympics golf team consist of more than just playing rounds of golf. Many of their practices are focused more on skills such as putting and driving. Hanson-Simmons said he enjoys the opportunities to practice with the other golfers on the team.

“It’s really fun to see your friends and teammates,” he said.

Next season, Hanson-Simmons will try competing in individual stroke play, with Spencer on the bag as his caddy. Spencer said it will be tough not competing along with him on the course, but he will still be there to provide support.

“It’s going to be hard. I like to play when I’m out there,” Spencer said. “But if it gives him a good opportunity, I would like to do it that way.”

Blaze Fugina

Blaze Fugina is the sports editor of the Woodbury and South Washington County Bulletin newspapers. Previously, Blaze worked as a sports editor for the Pierce County Herald and a sports reporter for the Alexandria Echo Press. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls in May of 2011. You can follow Blaze on Twitter at @BlazeFugina.

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