To date, the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games is the largest humanitarian event ever held in the state of Florida. With over 4,000 athletes, 10,000 volunteers and 125,000 spectators in attendance, the absence of one made all the difference to Special Olympics Davidson County equestrian athlete Justin Branham. Representing Team Special Olympics North Carolina (SONC) was, for Justin, a dream. On May 11, 2022, one month and one day before Justin would see that dream come true, his father passed away.
In the years leading up to the Games, Justin’s parents, Tonya and Robert, watched his love for horses and Special Olympics grow as he volunteered at a local horse farm and avidly trained in basketball, equestrian, softball and snowboarding. Justin and his father shared an interest in sports, spending the evenings watching “Street Outlaws,” cheering for their favorite street car racers. In the hospital, prior to his passing, Robert had every intention of doing the same for his favorite athlete, his son, in Florida.
“It was awesome,” said Justin. “It was gratifying for all the years that I had worked, waiting for my chance to get to go to the USA Games and make my dad proud… He always supported me and never acted like I had any problems. We figured out what I could do and couldn’t do. We had a picture of him with us, it was like he was there with me.”
Until the age of 5, Justin was unable to speak. Learning to adapt to life with an intellectual disability, Justin’s parents taught him the meaning of having a heart for others, regardless of the challenges they may face. Anyone privileged with the opportunity to meet Justin sees that heart in the span an instant.
“Justin battled being made fun of and being made to feel less than he was,” said Tonya. “His dad and I said, ‘Justin, you can be whatever you want to be.’ Just the heart that Justin has, he wants other people to succeed and win, even if that means that Justin has to give up what he wants. He has such a big heart for the athletes.”
Team SONC equestrian athletes were coached by Special Olympics Durham County coach Heather Glazer. Her daughter, Leah, competed alongside Justin during the USA Games. Heather, who affectionally refers to Justin as the team’s “cheerleader,” relied on his leadership and empathy in navigating the course of the week.
“He is an incredible human being,” said Heather. “He’s got the biggest heart, a servant’s heart. He was constantly offering up assistance, lending a hand in any way possible. He had a friend in competition from Kansas who did not win a medal, Justin wanted to give him his gold medals.”
In the stands, Tonya sat next to a framed picture of Robert, watching over Justin from the start of competition to the final medal ceremony. At the conclusion of the USA Games, Justin walked on the plane departing for North Carolina with two gold medals. Both medals he earned deservedly, Justin chose to honor others with his win. On June 19, the Branham family celebrated Father’s Day. At his father’s gravesite, Justin presented his gold medals in honor of his cheerleader, his dad.
Justin attributes his success to the people he loves most and to the horse that helped make it all happen. For competition in the USA Games, Justin was paired with Cloud. Riding Cloud, Justin won a gold medal in Level A Western Equitation, a gold medal in Level A Western Working Trails and a fourth-place ribbon in Level A Barrel Racing. Athletes competing in Level A are not assisted by a supported lead in walking, trotting or cantering.
“I got one of the most amazing horses,” said Justin. “Cloud was made for me and he reminded me a lot of my dad. He was a lot different than the horse I had been practicing on. I’ve been riding for over 20 years and it was not as challenging to ride a new horse. The people that trained him and owned him were great people.”
Well-known for his heart of gold, Justin shares his medals with fellow athletes, his community, his horse and most importantly, his family.
“Even in the hospital prior to his dad’s passing, he said, ‘I am going to Florida. I am not going to miss it,’” said Tonya. “In our eyes, he made it there and got to see all that Justin did. He was so proud of Justin getting to go. This was Justin’s dream, for him, this was a miracle. To see him just succeed in life and to prove to people that it’s not what you learn in school or what degree you have that makes you a good person. I’m just glad that Special Olympics exists. Justin shined and everyone got to see that.”