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Howard County Special Olympians, partners form perfect union

For more than four years, Tom Pirritano and Wayne Slifker have played golf together in Howard County's Special Olympics program. In that time they have become good friends, too. They are one of two pairs from Howard County heading to the 17th annual Special Olympics North America Golf Championship, which takes Sept. 29 to Oct. 2 in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

For more than four years, Ellicott City residents Tom Pirritano and Wayne Slifker have been partners on Howard County's Special Olympics golf team. During that time they've become good friends, too.

When practicing putting, Pirritano playfully teases Slifker about his misses. After tournaments, the two have a tradition of sitting down together for pizza at a local joint.

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"It's the friendship that means more than playing golf or any of the other stuff," Pirritano said.

The pair is one of two from Howard County's Unified Sports program heading to Port St. Lucie, Fla., on Thursday to represent Maryland in the 17th annual Special Olympics North America Golf Championship, which takes place Sept. 29 to Oct. 2. Jane Ahn and her mother, Young Hyun Ahn, of Columbia, are the other pair.

Special Olympics Unified Sports matches athletes who have disabilities with those who do not in order to break down barriers that separate people.

The four athletes from Howard County are among about 20 representing Maryland at the event.

"It's a huge trip for myself, but also for Wayne," Pirritano said of his partner, who has an intellectual disability. "I've been listening to 'how many days before we leave,' for about a month."

"How many days now?" he asked his partner.

"Seven!" Slifker said, without missing a beat.

In preparation for their trip, Slifker and Pirritano have been practicing two to three times a week, Pirritano said.

"We've been working very hard, practicing so that we can perform well, to the best of our ability, while we're down there," he said. "It's not about winning or losing. It's about giving your best effort."

All four golfers from Howard will play three rounds of golf in Florida and will have to walk all 18 holes on the course.

"That can be a challenge, playing three consecutive days when you're walking," Pirritano said.

"I hope there is not that much [heat]!" Hyun Ahn, 70, said.

She got involved with Special Olympics "a long time ago," she said, because her daughter, who has Down syndrome, needed to get outside and exercise.

"If we didn't have this kind of thing, she'd 24-hour watch TV," Hyun Ahn said of Jane, who is 40.

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Pirritano began volunteering with Special Olympics in the county about four years ago after a friend of his who coached the golf team put out a call for unified partners.

"I wrestled with it, then I came to do it and I've been here ever since," Pirritano said.

Pirritano, 63, was unsure if he wanted to make the commitment and wondered how he would associate with a Special Olympics athlete.

"And it has been such a rewarding experience," he said. "I would encourage anyone to do it. There's nothing like coming to get my hugs, my high-fives. I look forward to this day every week."

Slifker does, too. He smiles and laughs constantly in the presence of his partner.

"He's friendly to talk to, and he helps me, my stance," the 36-year-old said of Pirritano. "He says, 'Don't twist that,' and not to go backward when I swing."

Since becoming partners, Pirritano has watched Slifker develop as a golfer, he said, in that Slifker has grown to enjoy practicing and is able to think strategically.

"It's a sport of skill and thought," Pirritano said. "You have to strategize how you're going to play, where you're going to play, and whose turn, who's gonna go first, because that sets the tone for the whole day. And so now we share in the discussion. So before we play in a tournament now, we actually sit down together and go over how we're going to play the course, and then we go out and execute it."

Pirritano said that, overall, he gets more out of their partnership than Slifker does.

"Believe it or not, I do," he said. "The look in his eyes, just to be out playing, is all the reward I could ever ask for."

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