GALLOWAY, N.J. – Grace Anne Braxton has a lot to boast about.
The Fredericksburg, Va., native has earned two gold medals on an international stage. She has won 24 golf awards at the state level or higher and she is a top-ranked female Special Olympics golfer in the world.
But bragging isn’t really Braxton’s style. The soft-spoken 41-year-old spoke humbly of her achievements, the list of which includes individual stroke-play gold medals from the 2007 Special Olympics World Games in China, where she won the title by 32 strokes, and another victory four years later in Greece. And that’s only in golf; unless you ask, she won’t tell you about her first international gold medal, which she earned at the 1991 World Games in swimming.
Braxton made her New Jersey debut Friday on the Bay Course at the Stockton Seaview Hotel & Golf Club, the site of the 14th Special Olympics North America Golf Invitational Tournament, carding a 97 in the first round of Level 5 18-hole stroke-play competition. She finished eighth in a field of 21 competitors, most of whom were men twice her size.
“It feels really good [to be here],” said Braxton. “But when I’m here, I play against the guys, I want to be tough, you know? It’s kind of challenging for me. Playing from the blue tees was a little bit longer and a little bit more stressful for me. I got a little tired.”
Braxton was joined on the course by her father, the Honorable H. Harrison Braxton Jr., who retired in 2006 as a judge on the 15th Judicial Circuit Court in Virginia. A 1961 graduate of the University of Virginia Law School who served an Air Force tour of duty in Vietnam, Braxton now serves as a USGA rules official and was honored that his daughter asked him to be on her bag.
“She’s had a wonderful career in golf,” he said. “She’s had a wonderful career in swimming too, and she’s a lovely girl.”
Anyone who knows Grace Anne would agree. The younger Braxton has consistently shown rectitude on and off the course, a trait never evidenced more than in her famous sacrifice at the USA National Games in 2006.
Braxton had qualified for both golf and swimming that year in Ames, Iowa, but competition rules state that athletes can only compete in one sport. Braxton knew she had to make a choice. The favorite to win the gold that year, she knew had a better chance to win on the course than in the water.
But she elected to swim. With her withdrawal, Graham Wright, another Special Olympics golfer from Virginia and a good friend of the Braxtons who was the first alternate, made the field.
Wright, who had never competed in a large-scale golfing competition, was able to appear in the National Games for the first time.
“I did it out of respect,” said Braxton. “Graham Wright is one of my best friends, and so I did it out of respect for being an athlete. I let him do something different than me because I wanted to give him that opportunity.”
Rick Jeffrey, president of Special Olympics Virginia, was overwhelmed at her display of character.
“I thought that was a wonderful Grace Anne Braxton story,” he said, recounting the event in a video feature on Braxton for the 2010 National Games posted by Special Olympics Virginia. “Because as good of a golfer as Grace Anne is, that’s really the measure of a lady. Grace Anne is an even better person than she is a golfer.”
Braxton has become an iconic advocate for the Special Olympics, spreading the word on a global scale. She speaks at schools and recruits volunteers for the games and plays rounds with major donors.
“She goes out and plays with six or seven or eight groups of contributors in an 18-hole scramble,” said Judge Braxton. “So she’ll work her way from one end to the other and play with them all, and they get a chance to see what the two-time gold-medal champion of the world plays like.”
Braxton sits 16 strokes out of first place following Friday’s first round, a lead held by decorated Special Olympian Scott Rohrer, of York, S.C. That deficit might seem insurmountable to some, but anything can happen at the Special Olympic games. Grace Anne, for one, isn’t worried. Her father isn’t, either.
Because that’s one thing about Grace Anne, he said.
“She surprises you every time.”