Joy Roxborough spoke with Loretta Claiborne, a woman who overcame intellectual and physical disabilities and became an award-winning athlete
Recently, I came across Disney’s The Loretta Claiborne Story, the true story of Special Olympics athlete, Loretta Claiborne, who had experienced intellectual and physical disabilities since birth but went on to excel as a sportswoman, speaker and motivator. The movie evoked laughter and feel-good tears. For me, in two words: truly inspirational!
I was, therefore, delighted when Loretta agreed to speak with me for this article. I found her to be just as forthright, humble and principled as she was portrayed in the movie (by Kimberly Elise). Loretta said that, just as in the movie, her early years were characterised by her fighting a lot. “When I was a kid,” she said, “I never talked; I only used my fists.”
During her childhood, words like ‘retard’ were customarily used to describe people who had disabilities. She thought she had no value and that anything she had to say was unimportant but, she said: “My mom told me, ‘You have to learn to speak because if you don’t speak for yourself, somebody else will, and it won’t be good.’”
Change began to happen in Loretta’s life after she was involved in a fight at the shelter workshop she attended. She was asked not to return but instead was introduced to the Special Olympics – the world’s largest sports organisation for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Reluctantly, she joined Special Olympics in 1970 and the rest, as they say, is history.
Loretta already had a love for running and she began to excel in Special Olympics, winning many awards and gaining worldwide recognition. Her growing renown necessitated her using her voice as the invitations for speaking engagements began to pour in. These have included her speaking three times at the US Congress, the Vatican, the United Nations and speaking with five US presidents. Loretta is also a prolific speaker at schools, youth groups, and at various organisations and business groups. She is the Chief Inspiration Officer for Special Olympics, a role that involves speaking on behalf of Special Olympics, including to Congress to get funding; to educate people about Special Olympics; or in situations where a neutral voice is needed.
One thing that stood out to me about this phenomenal woman – both from the film and from speaking with her – is that she does not define herself by her achievements. Yet, in addition to her remarkable speaking engagements, she also has a list of other equally impressive achievements. Earlier this year, she was honoured as one of USA Today’s Women of the Year, an award given to women who have “broken barriers”, are “unique trailblazers”, and who exemplify courage to make lasting impact on communities (USA Today Network). She has also been inducted to five Halls of Fame.
Her athletic accomplishments include being the first Special Olympics athlete to run the Boston Marathon (1981), with a personal best time of 3:03. In 1988, she was one of the top 25 female finishers in the Pittsburgh Marathon. She has run 26 marathons; competed in six Special Olympics World Games, gaining several gold and silver medals; and holds a 4th degree black belt in karate. In 1996, she was an ESPY (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly) awardee, gaining the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage.
Despite her intellectual disability, she indeed graduated from high school – a point not dealt with in the film – and has been awarded three Honorary Doctorate Degrees in 1995, 2003 and 2019.
Another thing that struck me about Loretta was the genuine humility that governs her life. I cried when, at the end of the film, she was receiving the Arthur Ashe Award and Kimberly Elise, who played her character, told the audience:
If I could break it up in over a million pieces, I would love to do that and split it with every Special Olympics athlete.
It was totally in keeping with her true nature as she related to me how she declined an invitation to run with President Clinton because it would mean breaking her promise to her friend, Tim, to attend a sporting event where Tim, who was on the lower end of the autistic spectrum, had been chosen to sing the National Anthem.
Loretta’s motto is ‘God is my strength and Special Olympics is my joy’. Now 70 years old, she still runs, though not competitively, and participates in a host of other sports, including figure skating, volleyball, soccer, basketball and full workouts.
As parting words for Keep The Faith readers, Loretta said:
Times are tough. Things are hard for everyone, whether it’s sickness, war, decisions, your job. No matter how times get, always remember that, deep down inside, you might have to dig a little deeper to keep your faith.