- Associated Press - Sunday, May 7, 2017

MANDEVILLE, La. (AP) - Ashley Arceneaux has been in the pool since she was little but now she is a competitive swimmer. She bridged the gap between recreational swimming and racing with one organization.

“I started swimming when I was 6, but I didn’t learn the strokes until I joined Special Olympics,” Arceneaux said. “Special Olympics taught me the fundamentals of swimming which got me to my first national Olympic games in Lincoln, Nebraska.”

Arceneaux, of the Special Olympics Athlete Leadership Council, addressed the 2017 Special Olympics Champions Together Breakfast. The event was recently held at Benedict’s in Mandeville. St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Randy Smith was Honorary Chairperson. He received the title “Guardian of the Flame.”

The Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics relays the Flame of Hope across the state to raise funds and awareness. The relay kicks off the Opening Ceremonies of the Special Olympic Louisiana Summer Games on May 19-21 at Southeastern Louisiana University Stadium in Hammond.

Emily Hinrichs will run in the Torch Run later this year. She is the 2017 Athlete of the Year and competes in track.

“I like the longer runs,” Hinrichs said.

Like Hinrichs, the Champions Breakfast attendees also looked at the long view. Special Olympics Louisiana President and CEO Pat Carpenter Bourgeois addressed the organization’s vision for the future.

In addition to Smith, public officials at the breakfast included Mayor Mike and First Lady Catherine Cooper of Covington, who founded the first Special Olympics Breakfast; Secretary of State Tom Schedler; Parish President Pat Brister; St. Tammany School Board Superintendent Trey Folse; Abita Springs Mayor Greg Lemons; and Covington Police Chief Tim Lentz.

The Louisiana River Pilots Association was the title sponsor, donating $25,000. Larry Rase, Executive Director of the River Pilots Association, introduced the Association Presidents there. Capt. E. Michael Bopp, President of the Crescent River Port Pilots and Capt. Michael T.D. Miller, President of the Associated Branch Pilots represented the pilots group.

Additional sponsors were the J. Edgar Monroe Foundation, Parish President Pat Brister, Stephanie and Tom Schedler, the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady, Erwin Insurance Co., Ochsner for Children, Egan Healthcare, Stripe-A-Zone, Byron E. Talbot Contractor, Inc., Gulf States Construction Services, Latter & Blum Companies, and Resource Bank. The MCC Real Estate Group sponsored the Special Olympics Athletes’ Table.

The event was coordinated by Mary Louise Prudhomme of Prudhomme and Associates, LLC, James Hartman of James Hartman and Associates, Fran Tynes of Resource Bank, Jason Reibert of Gulf States Construction Services and Tim Naquin and Bonnie Sanchez of Byron E. Talbot Contractor, Inc.

The sponsors, however, didn’t need to look far for inspiration. Arceneaux, who enjoys writing in her journal, is proof of how much the organization can affect the life of a young athlete. She offered some sage words to the gathering.

“Imagination is a powerful fundamental that many people don’t seem to realize they have,” Arceneaux said. “Imagination is something that is a part of everyone. Imagination is God’s gift. Without imagination and critical thinking, you won’t go anywhere. You need imagination.”

Anyone can support Special Olympics Louisiana. You can become a “Fan in the Stands” cheering for the athletes at the upcoming Summer Games. Admission is free. Or you can donate. For more information, email Special Olympics Louisiana at www.laso.org, check out the Facebook page: specialolympicslouisiana, or call 1.800.345.6644.

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