by HARRIET KING
The campus Panera Bread is the most popular restaurant at UMW with the smell of fresh baguettes and coffee enticing hungry students throughout the day. According to marketing director Rose Benedict, it is the highest-trafficked franchised dining option, serving an average of 235 students per day.
However, it’s not just the food that draws students in; it’s also the sociable Grace Braxton, a Panera employee, who makes conversation with each student as she rings up their order on the daily. This small talk is the highlight of many students’ days.
“It always brightens my day when I see that it is Ms. Grace at the register,” said sophomore biochemistry major Emma Goehner. “She is always personable and just has a way of making students feel seen through something so simple as serving us at Panera.”
While some students may engage in lengthy conversations with her, there’s a certain skill that Braxton has been keeping a secret: her exceptional athletic abilities. Little known among the students who see her nearly every day, Braxton is a three-time Special Olympics medalist for golfing, even winning the gold in the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games in China. Her travels have taken her all over the world.
Berlin, Germany is the next stop on Braxton’s Olympic itinerary for the 2023 Special Olympics World Summer Games. She is well-known in the Olympic golfing community, and her skill doesn’t go unnoticed.
“No one at the World Games has ever come within 25 shots of her,” said Rick Jeffrey, president of the Special Olympics of Virginia in an article on the organization’s website. “She’s always paired with the guys, because none of the females can play with her.”
This year will mark Braxton’s fifth World Games.
“I have been to Minneapolis, Minnesota for the first international games in 1991, and for the World Games in China 2007, Greece in 2011, Abu Dhabi in 2019 and Berlin in 2023,” said Braxton.
From June 17–25, the Special Olympics will be held in Berlin, Germany, with Braxton competing behind her club for another gold medal in the golf division.
“I am looking forward to meeting new people from around the world,” she said.
Though she excels in golf, it was not the first sport she excelled at. Beginning at 8 years old, Braxton competed in the Special Olympics for track and field in Virginia. She has lived in Fredericksburg her entire life, learning new sports throughout her childhood and into early adulthood. There wasn’t a sport she didn’t try; from skiing, ice-skating, basketball or swimming, Braxton has tried it all, and she even won both gold and bronze medals in the pool for the World Games in 1991. Around that time, which came just after she graduated high school, Braxton decided to learn how to golf.
“I wanted to learn a new sport,” she said. “I was motivated by watching the professional golfers on TV and learning golf from my father.”
But Braxton didn’t just learn how to golf; she mastered it. In October 2022, she became the first person with an intellectual disability to be inducted into the Virginia Golf Hall of Fame.
In an article dedicated to her induction into the Virginia Golf Hall of Fame, five-time Virginia State Golf Association winner Broodie McGurn said, “Grace Anne has the most incredible attitude and her love for the game shows with every shot. She’s a blast as a partner. It is so much fun to play with her.”
Braxton currently plays golf on the weekends, as she works at the UMW Panera full-time. “I enjoy playing golf with friends of mine at the Fredericksburg Country Club and being a part of the LGA and the golf team for the club,” said Braxton. “I work Monday through Friday at Panera Bread and I have the weekends off to have time to practice. I went to a training camp in San Antonio Texas for the world games and I followed their instructions and I got on the team to go to Berlin.”
Braxton continues to practice for her upcoming competition while cheerfully serving students at Panera every day.
On March 7, the top of the CRUC will be hosting an “Amazing Grace” lunch from 11 a.m.–2 p.m. as an opportunity for her to thank students for their support. She has selected a menu for the dining staff to serve at Chef’s Fare and is looking forward to seeing students and staff there.
“We hope lots of students, faculty and staff come to lunch that day to say ‘hi’ to Grace Anne and celebrate her great accomplishments!” said Benedict. Students are welcome to come congratulate Braxton and get to know more about her.