Chautauqua, New York, is one of the few places that Chris Lussier has never played golf; that is, until this weekend when he and his Community College of Rhode Island teammates will travel there to compete in the NJCAA Division III Golf Championship. But win or lose, Lussier has already inspired so many people at CCRI – not only on the golf course, but in the entire Athletic Department.
Lussier, a Cranston native, has Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. One of the most decorated Special Olympians in the state, he has represented both Rhode Island and the U.S. at various golf tournaments from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Athens, Greece.
After graduating from Cranston West in 2009, Lussier enrolled in the Rhode Island Transition Academy, a special education program at CCRI that allows individuals to prepare for college life and independent living. As he became more comfortable at the college and with his studies, he had an idea.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m a Rhode Island Special Olympic athlete, I know I’m a good golfer; let’s see if there’s a way that I can further myself,’” he recalled.
That’s when Lussier went to see CCRI Athletic Director Joe Pavone, who was also the assistant golf coach at the time, and asked if he could try out for the golf team.
“From the first day, I realized his potential was in the love of the game and being part of something special,” Pavone said.
Lussier then met the head coach, the late Brian Deighan. He said he is forever grateful that Deighan, who lost a long battle with cancer in January, believed in him.
“Coach Jim Stringfellow and Ron Fielder have helped me a lot this year,” Lussier said. “They still knew that I missed Brian. They said ‘I know it’s going to be hard, Chris, but just remember, you’re playing in his memory this year.’”
Lussier competed in his first match for CCRI in 2011, but could only make some of the matches because of his course load. After taking last year off to focus on his studies, Lussier is back on the team and has been a main contributor to the Region XXI Champion Knights.
“He’s been the most consistent golfer for us this year,” Stringfellow said. “He’s willing to do everything for his teammates. Chris is truly a pleasure to have on the team because he’ll bend over backwards for you. … He is not only a great person and teammate, but a great golfer as well.”
With a two-day score of 178 at last week’s Regional, Lussier had the second-best score among CCRI golfers en route to helping the Knights capture the Region XXI Championship.
Shortly after this weekend’s Nationals, Lussier will depart for Princeton, NJ, where he will represent Rhode Island at the U.S. Special Olympics unified games. Casie Rhodes, a former three-sport athlete at CCRI honored with this year’s Distinguished Alumna Award, is the director of sports training for Special Olympics Rhode Island and will accompany Lussier and his teammates to New Jersey.
“I consider her to be a big sister to me,” Lussier said. “She always treats me with respect and I give it right back to her. Not once have I ever seen her mad at anybody. She knows that we try our hardest every single time, so that’s all you can ask for.”
Lussier’s Special Olympic success began in 2010, when he and his father, Alan, won a gold medal at the U.S. unified games held at the University of Nebraska. From there, the two earned the right to compete in the world games in Athens, Greece. Lussier now has his sights set on another gold medal in this year’s U.S. games, which would earn him an automatic bid to the world games once again.
But first, Lussier will proudly represent the Knights in New York next week.
“Anyone who knows Chris will tell you he is what we all should be: caring, dedicated and inspiring,” Pavone said.
The Community College of Rhode Island, New England’s largest community college, has full-service campuses in Warwick, Lincoln, Providence and Newport and operates satellites in Westerly and in the Shepard Building in Providence. CCRI enrolls an average of nearly 18,000 students annually in credit courses and thousands more in noncredit and workforce training classes and programs.