Twenty-eight year old Portland resident and Food Lion employee Dene Shehadi earned a gold medal at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando held June 4-12.
He competed in bocce singles and doubles. His gold medal came in the singles bocce competition, where he won each of the games he competed in. He placed fourth in the doubles, barely missing a bronze medal.
According to his mother, Rita Shehadi, she got Dene interested in the Special Olympics after his dad passed away in 2010. His interest had primarily been bowling, but had been active in participating in bocce.
Athletes had to qualify to go to the USA Games; and because of the COVID pandemic, those who qualified in the various sporting events in the 2019 state event had the opportunity to go. Dene earned a medal at that state event. Those who qualified had their names put into a hat for the event they were participating in, and if their names were drawn, they got to be a member of Team TN. Dene’s name was drawn for the bocce competition.
Dene’s coach was Mary Lee Burkett, who was the coach for the USA Games, and they first met at training camp in Nashville.
“We are very proud of him. He worked hard and is an amazing athlete. He concentrated and was very strategic in how he played. He is very disciplined and a sweet young man, who works hard and is athletic,” Burkett said.
Burkett’s daughter, Emily Burkett, also received a gold in singles bocce ball in her division and is from Wilson County.
“Dene is amazing. That kid went undefeated through all the preliminaries and in every single match he competed in up to winning the gold medal,” Director of Sumner County Special Olympics Kim Wafford said. “He was undefeated. He was laser focused. He came with a mission to win a gold medal and he did. We are so proud of him.”
Members of Team TN had to raise $1,500 to help with expenses and had to have transportation to all practices. Team TN traveled as a group to Orlando in a private plane from an airport in Smyrna. Their family and other supporters had to take other flights to Orlando.
Dene had never been away from his mother before, as far as being on his own.
“I knew he could do it, but in my heart I wondered. Now I know he can be independent,” his mother said. “To see him functioning independently helped me realize that he would be capable of doing this, if it ever became necessary.”
Team TN stayed at All-Star Music Hotel on the grounds of Disney. When they weren’t competing, they were able to go to Disney Springs, Animal Kingdom and the Magic Kingdom.
“I was nervous but really tried to focus on what I was doing. It felt really good to win, and it was a once in a lifetime experience,” Dene said. “I want to thank everyone for allowing me to do this and for the donations. I want to thank my family, friends, and co-workers for their support.”
There were 140 athletes competing from Tennessee. The team won 32 gold medals, 22 silver medals, and 21 bronze medals. The athletes competed in flag football, basketball, track, swimming, bocce, tennis, golf, bowling, powerlifting and volleyball.