Eunice Kennedy Shriver believed in inclusion. But back in the 1960s, she saw very little inclusion or justice for people with intellectual disabilities. They were excluded and routinely placed in institutions, they were often ignored and neglected, and there were very few opportunities for personal or professional development.
Along with her famous siblings, including former President John F. Kennedy and former Senators Ted and Robert Kennedy, Shriver had a sister, Rosemary, who had an intellectual disability. The two grew up playing together and Eunice quickly realized the potential and abilities that Rosemary demonstrated through sports. She believed that, if given the same opportunities and experiences as everyone else, that Rosemary and people with intellectual disabilities could accomplish far more than anyone thought possible.
Shriver started ‘Camp Shriver’ as a summer day camp in her backyard in 1962, inviting young people with intellectual disabilities to experience sports and test their bodies and minds in new ways. The idea quickly spread and gained momentum, leading to the very first Special Olympics held at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 1968. During the Opening Ceremony, Shriver expressed that the inaugural Chicago Special Olympics proved "a very fundamental fact” - that children with intellectual disabilities can be exceptional athletes and that "through sports, they can realize their potential for growth.” She pledged that this new organization, Special Olympics, would offer people with intellectual disabilities everywhere “the chance to play, the chance to compete and the chance to grow.”
But would it work? Would people accept the movement, which was largely unheard of at the time?
Fast-forward nearly 50 years to Wednesday, July 12, 2017, as a theater full of the top sports figures in the world stand to celebrate as Shriver is posthumously honored with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 25th Annual ESPYS on ABC. Special Olympics, which began as one woman’s dream in her backyard, is now a recognized worldwide organization that serves more than 5.3 million athletes in 170 countries.
“She wanted to be known as a great hero of sports, and tonight she got it,” said Tim Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics International, who accepted the award on his behalf of his late mother. “My mother knew one thing: that the athletes of Special Olympics deserve the same glory as any athlete around the world.”
The Arthur Ashe Courage Award, which is given out annually to an individual whose exceptional courage and character transcends sports, was presented to Tim Shriver by former First Lady Michelle Obama. The video tribute to Shriver featured footage from the 2017 Special Olympics Northern California Summer Games, as ESPN was on site to film for the competition. Numerous local athletes were included in the heartwarming piece, highlighting the Opening Ceremony, competitions, medals and individual athletes as part of the narrative on Shriver’s life and the Special Olympics movement.
“Eunice Kennedy Shriver was a passionate champion for those with developmental challenges, empowering them to fulfill their highest potential,” said Obama. “Her work to promote inclusion and acceptance transformed the lives of countless young athletes and inspired us all. I am incredibly honored to present this award to her son to celebrate her life’s work.”
Another facet of the ESPYS celebration of Special Olympics was the recognition of 24 Special Olympics athletes from across the country who had great accomplishments in competition and embody the Special Olympics spirit in their daily lives. These athletes were presented with honorary ESPY Awards leading up to the national broadcast and a select few joined Tim Shriver on stage for the Arthur Ashe Courage Award presentation.
Two of the 24 honored athletes represented Special Olympics Northern California: Kobie Respicio of Yuba County and Stephanie Ching of Santa Clara County.
Kobie was born prematurely weighing under two pounds and spent the first three months of his life in the hospital. As he got older, he needed physical, occupational and speech therapy just to keep up in school but with a lot of hard work and dedication, eventually joined general education classes in high school. Proving many doubters wrong, Kobie’s inspiring resume now includes numerous clubs and academic honors, competing in Special Olympics swimming, becoming a black belt in karate and recently being accepted to St. Mary’s College in Moraga to study in the Justice, Community and Leadership program. Kobie’s goal is to use his education to become an ambassador for people with intellectual disabilities in government.
Stephanie has been competing with Special Olympics for more than 26 years in swimming, golf, floor hockey, bowling, tennis, bocce and bowling. Since 2000, she has been a Special Olympics Global Ambassador, allowing her to speak to thousands of people about how Special Olympics has taught her the importance of exercise, to be a good team player and show good sportsmanship, and to have a positive attitude, not only in sports, but in life. Stephanie lives with her parents and has worked for Stanford University Athletic Department in guest services for the past 13 years. She has been serving as the Special Olympics athlete representative on the Special Olympics Northern California & Nevada Board of Directors since 2012 and was inducted into the San Jose Sports Hall of Fame in 2006.
There are more than 21,000 athletes who participate in Special Olympics Northern California, each with their own story to tell. As Special Olympics looks ahead to its 50-year anniversary in 2018, the future is brighter than ever for those with intellectual disabilities – but there is still much work to be done. You can help support Special Olympics athletes in your community by making a donation below.