On the bocce court, Special Olympics USA athlete Abby Brennan and Unified partner Becky Brennan have an edge. Unified pairs rely on an intensified level of communication, knowing their partner’s move before they make it. Abby is deaf, so the two rely on sign language to communicate. More importantly, their relationship as mother and daughter is intrinsic to their dynamic in competition. The two have modified certain signs, allowing Abby to best express herself and to identify those she loves. Using name signs, Abby creates unique identifiers for friends and family members based on their character.
As circumstances would have it, Abby has several deaf relatives and her family was well-adjusted to signing long before she was born. Three sets of great aunts and uncles were all involved in deaf education and have served as her role models. When Abby turned 8, Becky advocated for her involvement with Special Olympics South Dakota.
“We found out that she loves to bowl,” remembered Becky. “It just evolved from there… A long time ago, we bowled as a Unified pair, but more recently, we have focused on bocce. It’s always fun to be able to go to the practices, not necessarily to coach her, but to get to play with her. I think she likes having her mom play with her.”
To that, Abby agreed. Living in South Dakota, the pair have adapted to training for the Special Olympics World Games Berlin 2023 in cold weather conditions. On especially cold days, they train in the fieldhouse of a nearby gym. On other days, there is an outdoor space across from Becky’s home where they can practice. Becky, who spent 35 years preparing others for key events, is treating this experience no differently.
“I joined the South Dakota Air National Guard when I was 17 years old, so I was still in high school,” said Becky. “My job was getting everyone ready to deploy. I helped arrange flights and hotels, readying airmen to go on their deployments. I retired 12 years ago, which was great. It gave me the opportunity to get more involved with Special Olympics.”
Today, Becky serves as the chairperson for the Sioux Fall Fireworks, which operates under Special Olympics South Dakota. In her many roles with Special Olympics over the past 20 years, being the parent of an athlete is the most significant. Now, standing beside her daughter at the Special Olympics World Games is a dream come true.
This summer, Abby looks forward to flying on the plane to Germany, playing bocce on a new court and meeting new friends, a favorite pastime of hers.
“She is always meeting new friends and she loves to see people,” said Becky. “Once she sees someone, she always remembers them.”
Eight years ago, Abby moved into a home with five other ladies. Through her day program, she engages in social activities, such as bowling, shopping, and cooking. Rita, Abby’s best friend and roommate, is 72 years old and retired from competing in Special Olympics this year. Abby is also active in FRIENDSLink, an organization dedicated to forming and fostering friendships between adults with differing abilities, through Augustana University.
When meeting a new friend, Abby identifies that person with a name sign. To refer to “Abby,” it’s the right arm crossed over the chest with the fist placed over the heart. To refer to “mom,” Abby places the thumb of her open hand against her chin. However it is said or signed, their affinity for each other is understood.