By Randy Kindred
The Special Olympics oath reads: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
Special Olympics athletes repeat the words as part of their competitions. Few have embodied them quite like BilLee Gratton of Girard.
Four days after undergoing surgery for a broken finger, and with his left arm in a cast and sling, Gratton competed Saturday in the individual skills portion of the Special Olympics Illinois State Golf Tournament.
The 17 year old could use only his right arm while participating in the irons, woods, chipping (bunker shot), pitching, short putt and long putt at Hickory Point Golf Course in Forsyth.
“It’s hard, but I’m trying,” he said.
That was a victory in itself.
Gratton’s left pinkie finger was injured August 27 while he played catch at flag football practice.
“It was a fastball,” he said. “He threw it and I guess I caught it the wrong way.”
The finger hurt immediately. Gratton told his mother, Cinthya Pedigo, and father, George Gratton.
“We thought, ‘Oh, it’s just jammed,’” Pedigo said.
So BilLee played on, participating in two flag football scrimmage games that day. He scored two touchdowns and grabbed several flags on defense.
Next, he volunteered as a helper with a Chatham Chargers volleyball practice. Then, he went to practice his golf skills for two hours.
All the while, he told his parents, “It hurts really bad!”
The next morning, Gratton’s finger was swollen and black and blue. His mother took him to the doctor, where it was revealed the finger had a dislocated knuckle and multiple breaks.
After the swelling subsided, surgery was performed September 5 to insert four pins in the finger. His arm was put in a cast and sling to immobilize the hand/finger.
“Four days later, we’re here,” Pedigo said. “Before he went into surgery, the doctor said, ‘Do you have any questions?’ He said, ‘Can I still play golf at state?’ That’s what his mind was on … how long am I going to be out of my sport?
“We’re really proud of him, proud that he came out and participated. We’re proud that he wanted to.”
Special Olympics competitions mean a lot to Gratton and his 14-year-old brother, CharLee. They participate in nearly every sport that is offered in the Chatham program.
This one was particularly important to BilLee in light of his injury. If it meant competing with one arm, so be it.
“We like to finish what we started,” George Gratton said. “He’s not making what he normally would, but he’s doing all right.”
In the process, he made good on an oath while placing fifth.
“It’s part of our motto, right?” his mother said. “You do the best you can … be brave in the attempt.”
Ethan Hoh, 21, of Lombard has worked as a caddy for several summers at Butler National Golf Club in Oak Brook.
“This is not my first time carrying the bag,” he said, smiling.
Maybe, but Saturday was the first time toting the bag at the state tournament for his uncle and godfather, Tony Lewaniak of Elmhurst.
“I like to see him out here having fun and competing,” Hoh said. “It’s cool to see them show good sportsmanship and have a good time.”
Lewaniak, 36, won a gold medal in the three-hole division. He advanced to state through qualifying in Bartlett with Hoh on the bag.
“I like that it’s fun,” Lewaniak said. “My godson is here and my mom and dad.”
Hoh and Lewaniak share more than golf. For several years, they have met every Wednesday at Lewaniak’s place to make dinner together. They prepare it from scratch, eat the meal, then clean up afterward.
Scott Sullivan of Oak Lawn earned a bronze medal in the individual skills competition, a satisfying result. Yet, Special Olympics have taught Sullivan, 27, to also be excited for fellow competitors during his nine years of participating in golf, floor hockey and bowling.
His mother, Michelle Karnoski, sees that as a huge benefit.
“His sportsmanship has improved immensely,” she said. “He participated in regionals for bowling in August and he got a bronze medal. He said, ‘I’m really happy for the gold medalist. Give someone else a chance to go to state,’ because he knew he was going to state here. I almost cried.”
To learn more and view results from the 2023 State Golf Tournament, click here.