Special Olympics athlete Loretta Claiborne is the Chief Inspiration Officer for Special Olympics. She is a world-class competitor and one of the most inspirational and remarkable women of our time. For Loretta Claiborne, Special Olympics revealed the champion within -- even after many years of having her talents and abilities denied and ignored by others. Growing up in York, Pennsylvania, Loretta did not talk or walk until the age of 4. Despite doctors' advice, Loretta's mother refused to put her child, who is also partially blind, in an institution. Loretta was the middle child of seven siblings born to a single mother, growing up with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The odds were stacked against her. She was also bullied so much at school by her peers, her only outward recourse was to use her fists to try and fight back, or sometimes use her feet to simply run away. When Loretta found Special Olympics in 1970, her energy and her gifts found an outlet.
Her anger was channeled to excelling as a world-class runner and becoming an advocate for people with intellectual disabilities. Today, Loretta is one of the most accomplished and celebrated of all Special Olympics athletes. She has competed in more than 26 marathons, finishing with the fastest 25 women runners in the Pittsburgh Marathon and twice with the top-100 runners in the Boston Marathon. She won gold medals in the 1991 and 1999 Special Olympics World Games half-marathon. Loretta holds honorary doctorates from Villanova University and Quinnipiac College, speaks five languages, has a black belt in karate, was the recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award and sits on the Special Olympics International Board of Directors.
Loretta continues to change the way the world views people with intellectual disabilities (ID). Before it was publicly acceptable to advocate for people with ID, she courageously championed them and spoke out, bringing light to the horrible injustice that this population faces all over the world. Loretta set out to change attitudes, one person by one person, demonstrating the benefit of inclusive and accepting communities and how the world is a better place when every person is given the opportunity to reach their full potential. Loretta’s courage has changed the course of history for people with ID and is helping give them their rightful place in society. Her story is so powerful that in 2000, Disney produced a movie called “The Loretta Claiborne Story” about her strength and triumph.
In a time in the U.S. where people with ID were often institutionalized and not treated equally, Loretta stood up, ran, fought and actively lived her life to show the world the capabilities of people with ID. She lives this out every day of her life, whether she is competing with Special Olympics, running a marathon, or speaking out to school and public audiences. She seizes opportunities and uses her abilities to be a force for good. Many years ago, Loretta learned to knit. She has used this skill by teaching teen mothers in her community how to knit so they can make clothes for their children. Following Hurricane Katrina, she worked furiously to knit baby caps for storm victims. And after visiting a school in South Africa that lacked the most basic supplies, she began a campaign of collecting school supplies and sending them regularly to the school.
In 2001 she was among the distinguished speakers who testified to the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations on the health status and needs of persons with intellectual disabilities. During the hearing, Loretta stopped reading her testimony mid-way through to speak in heartfelt words about her own struggle to get quality medical care and her current situation at the time where she could not secure surgical treatment for her injured knee because of her disabilities and her health care provider’s disregard for her situation. The testimony led to a Surgeon General’s call to action to bridge the gap in health disparities for people with intellectual disabilities. In September 2013, Loretta joined a roundtable discussion during the United Nations General Assembly High Level Meeting on Disability and addressed the gathering of high-level world leaders asking them to truly ‘see’ people with intellectual disabilities and recognize that they can contribute and achieve in society if given access to basic services.
Loretta exemplifies perseverance and the ability of the human spirit to overcome obstacles and failures. As a result of being bullied, Loretta became an angry child and was often getting in fights as a way to cope. After finding Special Olympics, Loretta learned that anger and fighting were not the solution. She learned that demonstrating what she, as a person with an intellectual disability, could do would help those accept her and others like her. She tells people of all abilities, “Be the best you can be and never let anyone doubt you. Find your opportunity and see what you can do.”
Despite not being able to walk until she was 4 years old, Loretta utilizes the power of sport to create social change and inclusion and to promote development and peace. At the age of 50, after being an accomplished runner, Loretta reached beyond her athletic bubble and learned to figure skate, eventually competing in the Special Olympics World Winter Games in figure skating. Loretta has used the power of sport to instill discipline and self-worth and taught us that adversity means nothing if you are able to step outside of your comfort zone. For more information on Loretta, please visit www.lorettaclaiborne.com.
ATHLETE. ADVOCATE. INSPIRATION. : FEATURED PRESENTATION