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BR Parents - Thrive: Dancing Through Life, Including a Triathlon

 First published in the August 2021 issue of Baton Rouge Parents magazine and on its website.

With the Special Olympics canceled for another year to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the options for athletes with intellectual disabilities were even more limited. But for 25-year-old Christopher Ballard of Denham Springs, a new athletic challenge presented itself: completing a triathlon. 

Christopher has Down syndrome, so the Freedom Fest Triathlon in New Roads modified the cycling part of the race to accommodate his speed. Christopher finished the 400-meter swim, five-mile bike ride (instead of the 10 miles other competitors rode) and two-mile run/walk.

“If they hadn’t had to close the road down early, he could have completed the whole thing,” says Mary Ballard, Christopher’s mother. “He had the endurance, they just didn’t have the time for him to do it.”

The triathlon was a family affair, and Mary participated and finished as well. Their times were both a little over two hours. “How can I tell him no when I’m expecting him to do this?” she says. Older brother Blake, younger brother Joshua and dad Robert are also present for everything Christopher does. “Family support is everything,” Mary says.

Tiffany Landreneau was Christopher’s coach for the triathlon and has worked with him and others to train for the Special Olympics for a couple years. “She’s been right there by his side. She has been his rock,” Mary says.

Training for the triathlon happened mostly on the short street where the Ballards live. “He was content to do his running and riding right here on our street,” Mary says. Christopher trained with Tiffany in the pool at Southeastern Louisiana University, and closer to the race, did several weeks of swimming in a lake to get used to the open water. “He jumped in, caught his breath, and took off swimming and never looked back,” Mary says.

Christopher loves to dance, and he regularly dances as part of worship services at his church, Revival Temple in Walker, where he’s also involved in children’s ministry. He even danced during the triathlon.

“He was probably the most active baby I’ve ever had in my womb,” Mary says. “He was constantly moving, and when he came out, he just kept right on dancing.”

In addition to his athletic pursuits, Christopher is a student at Southeastern in their Lions Connected program, majoring in theater, dance and music. Although the classes are not for credit, he gains knowledge and will finish the four-year program next year. He was also in the first special needs class at Denham Springs High School to graduate with a diploma rather than a certificate, and he lettered in three sports: powerlifting, swim, and track and field.

Bowling is another sport in which Christopher excels, and it’s a way for him and his family to build community, helping connect others to resources and navigate legal issues in a forced heir state. Their team, Livingston Legendz, draws families from as far as Central and Port Allen to compete and celebrate milestones together. When the Special Olympics resume, Christopher hopes to make it to nationals with bowling, and the possibility of completing an Ironman competition also interests him.

As he continues to thrive in all aspects of his exceptional life, Christopher works for Carter’s Grocery Store in Denham Springs. His work schedule is flexible to accommodate his academic schedule, and he works Friday mornings. “Some people go every Friday just to see Christopher,” Mary says. “He’s proud of his paycheck. And I’m proud of him.”