Special Olympic athlete chases gold to honor late father
HOLTS SUMMIT - The Missouri Special Olympic State Outdoor Games concluded Sunday. While many athletes competed, the games took on a little extra importance for one competitor.
Keith Lueckenhoff, of Jefferson City, is a 41-year-old man with Down syndrome. He teamed up with Missouri Special Olympics board member 47-year-old Gary Wilbers in the Unified Golf competition Friday.
The two became friends years ago.
"Keith is giving, loving, very sharing and just has an atmosphere that makes you realize that life is about living and enjoying every moment of it," Wilbers said.
They both grew up in Wardsville, but became especially close when Wilbers got involved with Special Olympics.
Seven years ago, Lueckenhoff asked Wilbers to be his golfing partner.
"Keith always had that personality of being outgoing," Wilbers said. "He's one of those individuals that you're attracted to because of his great attitude."
In March, Lueckenhoff's father, Lawrence, passed away from kidney cancer at the age of 83.
Lueckenhoff said his father's passing is the reason that he so determined to play well in the competition.
"I want to get gold for my dad," Lueckenhoff said.
Lueckenhoff's mother Adele and his sister Edith joined family members to support him as he played in the games.
Adele Lueckenhoff said Keith resembled his father in a lot of ways.
"He was really outgoing and very friendly too, she said. "He knew everybody and he was always helping people."
His sister said Lueckenhoff and his father grew a lot closer in their father's later years.
"When dad retired, he took over," she said. "I think Keith would tell you that he didn't lose his dad. He lost his best friend."
Adele said that that the death of his father was very difficult for Keith to handle.
"His dad was always doing things for him, so it was hard," Adele said. "Every day he tells me how much he misses him."
Wilbers and Lueckenhoff competed in a group of three pairs, and took the lead late in the day to secure first place. The pair won the gold medal he hoped for.
He shared several emotional moments with his family and Wilbers during an awards ceremony following the win.
"That was for dad," Wilbers said.
His family, and everyone else at the ceremony, took time to congratulate Lueckenhoff and reflect on what an important moment it was for him.
"It was very rewarding," Adele Lueckenhoff said. "I'm very proud of him, and I'm sure his dad is proud in heaven too."
A day later, Lueckenhoff expressed gratitude for the support of his family.
"They will always be in my heart," he said. "They always take care of me."
That's why Lueckenhoff didn't need to chase for gold.
He's already found it.