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Claiborne, Loretta 1953–

Loretta Claiborne 1953

Special Olympics athlete and speaker

Special Olympics Changed Life

Movie Celebrated Triumph

Testified at Senate Hearing


Loretta Claiborne is well known in the world of Special Olympics, where she found her calling in life and was able to rise above the negative perception that mental disability meant inability. Early in life she ran from youthful tormentors who teased her because she was different. She discovered a joy in running and, with the help and concern of a caring social worker, ran her way into the Special Olympics. Claiborne has won many awards in the Special Olympics, including a gold medal, and was inducted into the Special Olympics International Hall of Fame. She has earned a number of honors, was the subject of a Disney movie, and has appeared on media talk shows. Claiborne has come to epitomize triumph over adversity, and is a renowned speaker best known for her motivational speeches and workshops. Despite being a celebrated athlete, she remains humble and insists she is not a hero. On the ABC Classroom Connection website she was quoted as saying, The real heroes are those people who opened doors for me when mental retardation wasnt a topic that interested anybody. Claiborne serves as a Special Olympics spokesperson; her life-defining comment is God is my strength and Special Olympics is my joy.

Special Olympics Changed Life

Loretta Claiborne was born in York, Pennsylvania, in 1953 and grew up in a single-parent family of six children. Born with both a physical and mental disability, she did not walk or talk until she was four years old. Her mother, Rita, was advised by social services to put her daughter in an institution for the mentally retarded, but instead she enrolled her in public school.

The young Claiborne grew up in a less tolerant time, and was teased mercilessly by other schoolchildren because she was in special education classes. As she grew older she began to run away to escape the taunts, and eventually became a skilled runner. Because she was enrolled in special education classes, she was not allowed to participate in school sports; but by then Claiborne wanted to be an athlete. Her running skill brought her joy, but it wasnt enough to override the anger she felt because of the treatment she received. She got into many fights and as a result was thrown out of high school and lost a job.

Claiborne met Janet McFarland, a straightforward and persistent social worker who recognized her talent and introduced her to the Special Olympics in 1971. On the ABC Classroom Connection, Claiborne recalled that Special Olympics was the biggest turning point in my life. She began training and competing, won many contests, and in 1999 won the gold medal in the half marathon. She also qualified, trained for, and ran in the Boston Marathon in 1981, the first Special Olympics athlete to do so. She placed among the top 100 women that year and again in 1982. Since then she has finished more than 25 marathons, including the Pittsburgh Marathon in 1988, where she finished among the top 25 women runners.

Movie Celebrated Triumph

Claiborne began to be sought out for speaking engagements, and served in many capacities at various sports events. She has met celebrities, corporate executives,

At a Glance

Born Loretta Claiborne in 1953, in York, PA.

Career: Special Olympics athlete.

Memberships: Board of directors, Pennsylvania Special Olympics, 1982; Special Olympics International, 1991; Project GOLD Committee, U.S. Olympics, 1996.

Awards: Spirit of Special Olympics Award, 1981; Pennsylvania Special Olympics Female Athlete of the Year, 1988; Special Olympics International Athlete of the Year, 1990; Runners World magazine Special Olympics Athlete of the Quarter Century, 1991; York, Pennsylvania, USA Sports Hall of Fame, 1992; William Pern High School Alumni Hall of Fame, 1992; Honorary Doctorate Degree of Humane Letters, Quinnipiac College, CT, 1995; Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, 1996; Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA) Heroes award for State of Pennsylvania, 1996; Gold Medal half-marathon, Special Olympics World Summer Games, 1999.

Addresses: 440 East King Street, Apt 1S2, York, PA 17403.

and politicians; in the opening ceremonies of the 1995 Special Olympics World Games, she introduced President Clinton. In 1996 she was awarded the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. It was presented to her by actor Denzel Washington at the ESPN sports channels ESPY, or Excellence in Sports Performance Awards, in a live telecast fashioned after awards shows such as the Academy Awards.

In 2000 a movie based on Claibornes life was released. It took more than four years to plan and film. Claiborne was first approached about it in 1991 and again in 1995. She told ABC Classroom Connection that she said at first, No, not my cup of tea. Why is my life so interesting? But she later relented when she saw that it might help encourage others and that it would help the Special Olympics. She has made it her life mission to educate people about equal treatment for persons who are mentally challenged.

The movie idea had first been broached by Timothy Shriver, president and CEO of the Special Olympics. He approached Michael Eisner, chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company, and the idea made the rounds with Disney executives. The videotape of Claiborne receiving the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the ESPY awards show, and her acceptance speech at the ceremony, won her several champions at Disney, and the movie process was set in motion. Actress Kimberly Elise portrayed Claiborne and Camryn Manheim played social worker Janet McFarland. The Loretta Claiborne Story aired in January of 2000 and received mostly positive reviews. Reviewer Brain Webster said in his Apollo review that it offered a modestly interesting and even inspiring portrait of unexpected success but [it] suffers from many of the usual failings of movies originally made for television. Webster cited shallowly-drawn supporting characters and narrative skips as among the movies faults.

Testified at Senate Hearing

During the 2001 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Alaska, Claiborne participated in the first U.S. Senate hearing on the needs of persons with mental retardation. A panel of speakers, one of which was Claiborne, discussed mental retardation, health care, and physical fitness. Another speaker was Timothy Shriver, Special Olympics president and CEO. In the Senate hearing report he was quoted as saying that he was stunned to learn at the 1995 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Connecticut that 30 percent of the athletes had visual problems and 20 percent had severe pain despite having been seen by doctors. His contention was that people with mental disabilities do not get the same quality of health care as those without mental disabilities. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher agreed, and called for improved training and sensitivity awareness on the part of health care providers.

Claiborne addressed the hearing and stressed health care equality for persons with mental disabilities. She spoke of her life and how she had turned it around, by getting medical care as a child to help overcome her physical disabilities, including a bad foot that barely allowed me to walk, let alone run; and, severe problems with my eyes that made it difficult for me to understand what was going on around me. The care she received enabled her to become a focused, determined, and healthy athlete. She added, But I still have health challenges and have to fight the system every time I need medical attention. I have had a tumor misdiagnosed and mistreated. I have ongoing knee problems. These conditions are not related to mental retardation; they are common medical problems that dont require doctors to be experts in caring for a patient with special needs. They are medical problems that just require a doctor to want to treat a person with disabilities.

Loretta Claibornes goal in her speeches is not to bring attention to herself but to describe the adversity she has faced and the triumphs she has achieved through the Special Olympics. In her speeches she praises the more than one million Special Olympics athletes, and shares her own successes. When she spoke at the Okinawa Special Olympics in June of 2001, she was quoted in a Hickam Air Force Base press release as telling the crowd of supporters and athletes, Listen to the oath: Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt. Being brave in the attempt adds up to going out there and trying your best. My message is that if they will try on the field, then one day theyll try at their job and in life in general. In her 1996 acceptance speech for the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, she told onlookers, I would like to break the trophy into a million pieces in order to share the award with one million Special Olympics athletes around the world.

Claiborne has been called an overachiever. Her other athletic pursuits include a black belt in karate, skiing, ice skating, bowling, basketball, softball, and roller-skating. She also speaks Spanish, Russian, and American sign language. She worked to have the half-marathon added to the 1991 Special Olympics, and to getting a full marathon accepted into the 1995 Special Olympics World Games.


ABC Classroom Connection,

Apollo Guide Review,

Hickam Air Force Base press release,

Loretta Claiborne website,

Special Olympics,

Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SBMA),

State of Pennsylvania, General Assembly of Pennsylvania,

Sandy J. Stiefer

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