Lauren Gault is still beaming with pride.
Recently, the West Hall High special education instructor was privileged with the honor of taking a handful of her athletes to the Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando, Fla.
And it’s an experience, she said, none of them will ever forget.
“Hands down, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever participated in,” said Gault, who recently completed her sixth year at West Hall.
West Hall sent five athletes, all part of the Hall County Special Olympics, to the celebration for 4,000 competitors with special needs, which was held June 5-12.
And no one made a bigger splash that Willie Ellison.
The Spartans’ powerlifter carried home tremendous showings in all three disciplines, earning a pair of gold medals and one silver.
Ellison lifted 501 pounds in the dead lift and 286 in the bench press for the top prize in both events, while his squat of 402 pounds was good for second overall.
In bowling, Anna Grace Brock and Kailee Callahan took gold in unified doubles, while Callahan and Cameron Simmons each took silver in singles.
Meanwhile, Rachel DeVall took bronze in the unified division.
As a team, Callahan, Simmons, DeVall and Brock combined for a bronze in the team competition.
West Hall’s athletes earned a spot to nationals after qualifying at state, then having their name pulled in a drawing to go to nationals.
In Florida, Gault saw her athletes flourish, socializing with all the other athletes and enjoying their time on the big stage together.
West Hall’s program director said one of the highlights was her athletes swapping state pins with participants from the rest of the country.
“They were able to meet people from Utah, New York and even Hawaii,” Gault said. “It was an interactive experience.”
And nobody soaked in every bit of the experience more than the ‘gentle giant’ Ellison.
Even with the television spotlight, West Hall’s talented lifter didn’t take it too seriously.
While other athletes were getting warmed up, Ellison was greeting all the volunteers, Gault said.
“He’s so humble and modest,” Gault said.
Even when prompted by his coach for a flex to show off his muscles, he just smiled back and gave a ‘little flex.’
Ellison, 22, is a natural athlete; he played football all four years, along with wrestling two seasons, Gault said.
However, his sweet spot is in the individual sports.
Blessed with incredible total-body strength, Ellison has flourished in weightlifting, which is something he plans to continue doing after high school.
In the future, Ellison would like to travel to the World Games.
Even though all the students have finished their high school curriculum, Gault plans to keep this group intact.
Regularly, they will get together to watch a movie or go out to eat to catch up.