IMG_1174.JPG

Ashley Bond, left, Sam Neighbors, center, and Jessica Kidd pose together outside the Burton Center. The trio are dressed in their South Carolina Opening Ceremony shirts they received from their time at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games. Together, they finished with seven total medals, including a gold.

On Monday, the halls of the Burton Center were filled with cheers and the sound of the “Rocky” theme song.

It was a fitting return for the Burton Center’s Olympians, Ashley Bond, Jessica Kidd and Sam Neighbors.

“We had a hero’s welcome yesterday for them because everybody was back,” Burton Center PR coordinator Teresa Medlin said. “We played the theme from Rocky when they walked in and everyone cheered and clapped. We had a big picture of them that we gave to them. We were really proud of them. They worked hard.”

This was Bond’s second Special Olympics USA Games, as she won a bronze medal in the games in New Jersey a few years ago. It was Kidd and Neighbors first time competing on the national stage and their first time traveling to Florida.

“It was a really good experience for me, my mom and my sister,” Kidd said. “I had fun. It was just hot.”

Medlin said Bond was the first athlete to attend the games from the Burton Center, while Kidd and Neighbors were the second and third athletes they’ve ever sent to the games.

Together, the trio walked away with seven medals from the games. Bond finished first in the Bocce Ball doubles, while finishing fourth in unified team play and fifth in the singles competition.

“The Special Olympics coordinator said they had never played on that surface before and it was really fast,” Medlin said. “The adapted quickly and they won the gold medal. They did really good.”

In the inaugural Special Olympics equestrian events, Kidd finished fourth in the English equitation and fifth in trail, while Neighbors finished fourth in trail and in the western equitation.

“We are very proud of them,” Burton Day Program Director Susan Keown said. “We have so many out here in our day program that have never seen a horse, never touched a horse, and there they are out there riding horses, just learning how. And they end up at the National Special Olympics. That’s amazing in itself.”

Neither had ridden their horse before coming down to Orlando, Florida, but they both had time to acclimate themselves early on in training. Kidd rode a horse named Spot, while Neighbors’ horse was named Savannah.

Both said they weren’t nervous about riding new horses, and it showed during their events.

“It was just interesting to me,” Kidd said of riding new horses. “They were really pretty horses.”

For Keown, one of the best parts about watching the trio travel down to Florida and compete was the independence they showed. Their families and coaches from the Lakelands accompanied them to Florida, but all three slept away from their parents for the duration of the trip.

“They showed independence that’s the main thing, (just) being away from their family members for eight nights,” Keown said.

The three also had a chance to visit two Disney parks, traveling to the Magic and Animal Kingdoms, where they had a chance to ride on some of the rides. Neighbors said that going to the Magic Kingdom, where he saw Mickey Mouse, was his favorite part of his eight-day trip to Orlando, Florida.

Now Neighbors, Kidd and Bond will look to continue their success when the next local Special Olympics competition takes place at Presbyterian College in April.

Contact sports writer Cody Estremera at 864-943-2530.