By ESTER SALGUERO
Ever since she was 8-years- old, Grace Anne Braxton, has been a hard worker. At that age, she started training to be the tenacious athlete she is today. She holds the title as one of the top-ranked Special Olympics female golfers in the world. Harrison Braxton, her father, has been right by her side through the years, coaching her and molding her into the strong woman that she considers herself to be now.
Before he retired in 2006, Grace’s dad was a judge on the fifteenth Judicial Circuit Court in Virginia. He was her very first coach but now, she also has Carl Koons, a professional coach from the Fredericksburg Country Club, who has stuck with her from the beginning. Born in Fredericksburg in 1971, Grace has remained a local resident for 45 years.
She started as an athlete with track and field— “I started when I was 8-years-old because I have an intellectual disability,” she said softly, looking in another direction while she sat across the table in Qdoba, on the University of Mary Washington campus where she works. Grace really is a well-rounded athlete, with experience in track and field, swimming, basketball, field hockey, skiing, ice-skating and golf. It’s no wonder she looks so young.
She graduated from James Monroe High School in 1990. Now, she spends her time making a point to never miss a UMW basketball game, ever since 2014 when Taylor Johnson, now an alumnus of Mary Washington, asked her to come watch them play back when you could find her working at the Eagle’s Nest two years ago. She has been working at UMW for 24 years and has built long-lasting relationships with members on the basketball team.
Usually, she would buy her own season tickets to the basketball games but this season the UMW team pulled their money together to buy the tickets for her. The basketball players always see Grace busily shuffling from table to table at Qdoba, where she stops to talk to them and give them napkins or eating utensils when needed.
Many would describe her as humble and sweet, especially by members of the basketball team. But she keeps her identity as a well-renowned athlete a secret, unless you ask. At home she has a closet full of over 700 medals. They have been collected from years of competition in the Special Olympics World Summer Games starting from 1991, right out of high school.
“I’m a big fan of the UMW basketball team and I love them, I love to be around watching these guys play sports,” Grace said, sitting across from me, fidgeting with her visor before her shift at work. Here at UMW, Grace says she loves the people she works with and she gets excited to meet new students all the time. “I like where I am at [and] I like who I am.”
All the men on the basketball team agree that Grace is their No. 1 fan. At the first game of the season Eric Shaw, a junior on the basketball team, took time to jump across the seats lined up on the side of the court to give Grace a fist bump before going into the locker room with the team. In her seat, she tells the players to “man up” and encourages them to play the best game they can, giving them the support that her dad gives her on the golf course.
“Every time we see her she gets so excited and it kind of just makes us excited,” said Brent Mahoney, one of the few seniors left on the basketball team. “She’s a day brightener.” Mahoney says that he wants to try to get Grace to play a few rounds with him on the golf course. He and Grace have their own handshake that they do whenever they see each other, a sign of the special bond they have together. At the game, anytime Mahoney would make a shot she would yell out “Yea! Mahoney” and turn to the person next to her to say a little something special about him.
Shaw talked about how important Grace is to the team. “Grace is extremely important, as I said before, she just has that great spirit,” he said. “I call her Amazing Grace, that pretty much speaks for itself.” Anytime he sees her, his spirits are lifted and they talk about basketball or “which Jamba Juice tastes best.”
“It was good to see that someone paid attention and cared and just to know that she went out of her way to see how good we were doing,” Shaw said.
Many students don’t know exactly how many accomplishments Grace has made in playing golf and why she continues to work at UMW. She really loves talking to students and meeting new people.
“I know she plays golf, better than I do, actually,” Mahoney said, after practice. “And I’ve been playing all my life.” He named Grace as one of his best friends on campus.
In 2007 at the Tianma Country Club Golf Course in Shanghai, China, amongst 7,500 athletes from 160 countries around the world, Grace won gold in the championship for women’s golf. This is just one of the landmark accomplishments that Grace has made. She has been to Athens, Greece for the World Summer Games and won another gold medal in 2011. “The greens were hard like a rock [in Athens],” Grace said, but she fell in love with the golf course like anytime that she steps out onto the field.
Whenever she is about to step out on the field she listens to music to get herself ready. She works hard and trains hard, there isn’t much else to it, as she says. She gets excited for sports, but golf and swimming are her favorites. Golf wasn’t the only sport that she excelled in at the World Summer Games in 1991, she also won a gold medal in swimming.
Other than training, winning and working at UMW, Grace spends her time playing solitaire or completing word search puzzles while she watches other sports like college football or baseball. She has had three different jobs over the course of her life. She has worked at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library, the hospital and UMW, which she says she wouldn’t trade for anything.
“I just love it here, I don’t want to change it for anything,” Grace said, fixing her visor. “I like to work with kids, students, meet new students [and] learn about their lives.”
As she was checking her calendar on her phone, showing me her training seasons she smiled at me and said, “You like the same stuff I do…coffee,” with a chuckle at the end. Her favorite is an iced chai tea latte.
Grace’s caring nature has made an impression on both Shaw and Mahoney. They both referred to the event, Eagle Madness, when Grace won a musical chairs contest, in talking about one of the best memories they had with her. They saw the whole community cheering her on and standing behind her, it touched their hearts to see people loving her back as much as she loves them. She goes to great efforts to show the team and students that she cares, by complimenting them, giving them hugs, providing them with what they need or just taking time out of her schedule to spend time to talk to them and go watch the basketball games.