“Positive.” That’s how UMW sophomore Maddie Shifflett summed up her on-campus hero yesterday at the University Center. Her response to NBC 4 reporter Dave Culver’s request to describe longtime Mary Washington dining associate Grace Anne Braxton in one word made it to the 6 p.m. news.
“Just like a ray of sunshine and happiness,” Shifflett, starting guard on Mary Washington’s women’s basketball team, told Culver on camera. “She’s always there supporting us and cheering us on.”
As a three-time Special Olympics World Games medalist, Braxton holds her awards dear. But the kindness and compassion, friends and family she’s found during her 20-plus-year career at Mary Washington mean even more, she said during the surprise celebration to recognize her most recent win – last month’s silver medal in golf in Abu Dhabi.
“Everybody who works here loves her,” said UMW President Troy Paino, who got to know Braxton not at Qdoba, where she works the lunch counter, but on a local golf course. “We all know who Grace is. ‘Amazing Grace’ is what we call her.”
Surrounded by students, faculty, staff – and a barrage of media, from The Free Lance-Star to Washington, D.C., television news networks – Braxton handled the hoopla like a champ, smiling as she sauntered through the University Center doors to face her fans on Ball Circle. Planned by Campus Dining Marketing Manager Rose Benedict, the party included colorful balloons, a big cake that read: “Amazing Grace, Congratulations ‘G!’ We Love You!” … and Braxton’s parents, Gail and Harrison Braxton.
“It meant the whole world to me,” she told reporters. “It made me feel really happy and excited, and I didn’t even know a clue about it.”
Explaining her “small intellectual disability,” she said: “It doesn’t bother me … it might take me a little longer to get things done, but as long as I get them done, I don’t feel bad about it because that’s who I am.”
Her boss of 16 years, Lakiesha Childs, who jumped through hoops to keep Braxton from learning about the surprise, said she feels the same way. “[Grace] doesn’t feel different here,” said Childs, who struggled to hold back tears while talking to Culver. “We’re family here, and we love her.”
A 9.2 handicap and Special Olympian for decades, Braxton was the world’s top-rated female Special Olympics golfer in 2007 and 2011. She’s competed at World Games in Greece, China and Minnesota and took the gold in last year’s USA Games in Seattle.
She keeps her most recent medallion close so she doesn’t lose it, she told UMW senior and men’s basketball team forward John Cronin, one of the many student-athletes who showed up yesterday to recognize her win. The two shared their special handshake while WJLA reporter Jay Korff’s cameras rolled.
“Braxton says the way that she’s treated at Mary Washington, with kindness and respect, gives her the confidence to perform on the highest of athletic stages and return not to a job but to a home,” Korff said on last night’s 11 o’clock broadcast.
“They made me feel like I belong in this community,” she told Korff. “I love it here, and I won’t leave it for the world, because this is my home.”
Watch video from Special Olympian Grace Anne Braxton’s surprise celebration at UMW.