In celebration of Black History Month, we highlight some of the Special Olympics Florida athletes who are shattering expectations and proving on a daily basis that people with intellectual disabilities will accomplish amazing things -– if they’re only given the opportunity.
Stacy Barnes, Escambia County
Stacy was born in Chicago and moved to Pensacola in 1986 when she was 4. She has been part of Special Olympics Florida for 25 years and has been an Athlete Leader for 16 of those.
She competes in more than half-a-dozen sports, including tennis, bowling, soccer, and equestrian.
Stacy has twice represented Special Olympics Florida on Capitol Hill Day and, one day, would like to serve on the Special Olympics Florida Board of Directors and become an International Global Messenger.
Her heroes are Special Olympics Chief Inspirational Officer Loretta Claiborne, and tennis greats Arthur Ashe and Venus and Serena Williams.
“These people paved the way for me,” she said, “and I hope to pave the way for future generations of Special Olympics tennis players and Athlete Leaders.”
Malcom Harris-Gowdie, St. Lucie County
Malcom almost certainly knows more about sports than you do. A Special Olympics Florida athlete for more than 15 years, he devours scores and stats for a sports report he produces. It’s all part of his long-term plan to become a full-time sportscaster.
Malcom has served as a special correspondent for CBS12 in West Palm Beach covering the New York Mets spring training. He’s appeared on Radio Row during the run up to the Super Bowl and was a special guest at the ESPY awards in Los Angeles.
A competitor in basketball, bowling, golf, and athletics, Malcom was Special Olympics Florida - St. Lucie County’s Athlete of the Year in 2010. As a young boy, he’d watch games with the television on mute and do his own play-by-play.
“I just want to have a voice and share my experience,” he says. “I want people to know anything is possible if you set your mind to it.”
Tajha Ilerant, Collier County
Tajha has been an athlete in Collier County for 10 years and is a Special Olympics United States Youth Ambassador. She is a Special Olympics Global Messenger, an Athlete Leader and President of the Athlete Input Council in Collier.
In 2018, Tajha traveled to Baku, Azerbaijan as a participant at the 2018 Global Youth Leadership Forum. The same year, she attended the South by Southwest® (SXSW®) EDU Conference as a panelist for the Special Olympics’ featured panel. In 2019, she was named the Special Olympics Southwest Florida Female Athlete of the Year.
Tajha draws inspiration from Loretta Claiborne and, like Claiborne, has committed herself to the principle of inclusion.
“In Special Olympics, we are a family with multiple races, which shows that through inclusion, we can be better than racism,” she says. “People can feel inclusion – I have. You can see people who aren’t like you and can accept them for who they are. Always remember that inclusion is the key.”
Albert “A.J.” Johnson, Miami-Dade County
A.J. has been part of Special Olympics Florida since he was 8. An all-around athlete, he’s participated in basketball, softball, swimming, golf, and flag football. But his specialty is athletics (track and field), where A.J. is a pentathlete and champion sprinter.
He’s represented Team Florida at two Special Olympics USA Games, winning gold in the 100-meter run in Seattle in 2018. Through Special Olympics Florida, A.J. also got the chance to compete in the famed Penn Relays, just as his uncle and grandfather had done decades earlier.
A.J. says his heroes are Martin Luther King Jr. -- with whom he shares a birthday – and NBA superstars LeBron James and Alonzo Mourning.
“LeBron and Zo are champions,” he says. “I always try to be a champion, too.”
Mikayla Wallace, Leon County
Mikayla is a talented athlete and an even better person. Compassionate and kindhearted, she cares for the people around her. She wants to help people feel good.
Now 21, Mikayla has been part of Special Olympics Florida for 13 years. She competes in basketball, flag football, bowling, and athletics (track and field). Her proudest Special Olympics Florida moments occurred on the track, where Mikalya has turned in gold-medal performances in the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints in multiple competitions. In 2017, she was also recognized for her outstanding sportsmanship. She has set a personal goal to become an Athlete Leader.
Mikayla attends the Transition Program at the Lively Technical Center in Leon County and expects to graduate in May. She works for Leon County Schools as an instructional aid.
When she’s not training or competing with Special Olympics Florida, she likes spending time with her family and friends. Mikayla is inspired by Erin Jackson, an Ocala native, who, this year, became the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in speed skating at the Winter Olympics Games.
Joshua Olds, Broward County
Joshua Olds is drawn to the water.
The 16-year-old Broward County athlete has been with Special Olympics Florida for almost six years, participating in stand up paddle, surfing, swimming, and open water swim. At the State Games, he’s competed in half-a-dozen sports.
Last year, Joshua discovered – and fell in love with – triathlon. It’s now one of his two favorite sports – along with swimming – and it’s the event he’ll compete in at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games.
For inspiration, Joshua looks to Jamaican swimming great Alia Atkinson, a five-time Olympian and world-record holder. “She is an amazing swimmer,” he says. “I want to swim my breaststroke like her.”
That’ll take effort, but Joshua has never been afraid of hard work. His favorite quote? “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.”
Billy Jules, Collier County
Billy Jules is a Special Olympics Florida state champion in two sports – cycling and bocce.
He’s participated in half-a-dozen different sports during his 12 years with the program and is proud to be an Athlete Leader.
He used the skills he developed in our Athlete Leadership program to start and run his own business, “Billy’s Fresh Produce.” Today, Billy works for the Collier County Public Schools.
Billy’s role models include basketball superstar Steph Curry -- “I like his personality, he interacts with little kids” -- and civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. “MLK is the Number 1 King,” Billy says, “and I look up to him."
Eugene Nunn, Hillsborough County
Eugene has been a Special Olympics athlete for 17 years, playing, initially, on a Unified basketball team in his home of New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, he moved with his family to Florida and began competing in Hillsborough County.
He’s since collected multiple gold, silver, and bronze medals in a variety of sports, but his favorites are basketball and flag football.
He loves the camaraderie and the support he gets from his teammates. He’s especially dedicated to Unified sports, saying it helps him and other athletes reach their full potential – both on and off the field.
Eugene is inspired by LeBron James – and would love to play some pick-up basketball with the NBA superstar – and NFL quarterback Jameis Winston. Eugene met Winston at a Bucs training camp, and Winston encouraged him to be the hardest working player on his team.