YORK, Pa. — They watched the woman old enough to be their grandmother crank out pushups on the gym floor.
She talked to the two dozen teenagers during her sets of pushups, then sit-ups — lecturing, inspiring, urging them to do their best in order for good things to happen.
She led them in laps around the Crispus Attucks Association gym in York’s south side. Then, Loretta Claiborne told them about her life.
By the end of an hour, the most famous Special Olympian had won over even more souls, and this time only a handful of blocks from where she grew up.
She uplifted the single mothers.
She humbled the former football players.
And she politely refused to accept a check to compensate her for her time.
“She makes it so that you can really overcome any obstacle,” said Elvira Torres, 19, part of that “mental toughness” class to improve life skills and job readiness.
Claiborne, who just turned 60, doesn’t drive and lives in a small home and uses Greyhound buses, bikes and her running shoes to get to where she needs to go. In one sense, she could use the money.
In another, it’s the last thing she needs.
“I want to make a difference with our young people. I enjoy it,” she said simply, offering no more.
York’s most unique celebrity continues to push hard past the three-quarters turn in life as an athlete, renowned speaker, world traveler and social activist.
She chattered on the other day, from one topic to another, as she walked out of Crispus Attucks, her workout and personal enrichment headquarters for most of her life.
The warming, early evening sun seemed to beg her on.
She paused for a bit and then took off, running toward the next great possibility.
Those teens at Crispus Attucks were like a lot of people who come in contact with her these days.
They had heard of Claiborne and the building named after her and the Disney TV movie about her life. They had glimpsed her steady runs through city streets.
But they had never met her. They didn’t really know her. They had no idea just how her life has flourished more since those national accolades more than a decade ago.
Who is she now? She collects four-leaf clovers and saves money by turning down the heat so low in the winter that she sleeps wearing “couch blankets” and sweatpants.
She also gets financial tips from Olympic gymnast Bart Conner, has traveled with world champion figure skater Michelle Kwan and has been “proposed” to by B.B. King and Warren Buffett — with a snapshot of the billionaire business investor down on one knee to prove it.
She has dined with four U.S. presidents and held court with Nelson Mandela.
Most importantly to her, though, is continuing to lobby for those with intellectual disabilities, like herself. Everything else is just a means to that.
Her latest project involves spreading the reach of Unified Sports to places like York. These programs, created about two decades ago, combine athletes with and without intellectual disabilities on the same teams.
The purpose is to foster friendships, self-esteem and understanding while breaking down the often cruel social order in school.
That would have been Claiborne’s dream growing up when she fundraised to start a girls’ track and field team only to be told she couldn’t participate.
That leads into the well-worn story of how she conquered her beginnings — the first chapter of her life — and how it’s still incredible enough to stand on its own.
She faced discrimination from all angles: A poor, black girl raised by a single mother in a crowded home in the Codorus projects. She was born partially blind and couldn’t walk or talk until she was 4. Officials diagnosed her as “mentally retarded” and recommended she be institutionalized.
Always slow to learn bookwork, she pushed as best she could through special education classes to earn her diploma from William Penn.
She describes growing up feeling like the “weakest of the weak, the castaways, the throwaways of society.”
She was taunted and told she wouldn’t amount to anything and certainly would never be able to give back. It was up to a handful of adults to calm her and believe in her then, often encouraging her to run.
Most important was her mother, that large, bold woman who ruled an immaculate home with the force of Moses on the Mount. She made her children call her, “Rita,” and she was the toughest on whom everyone assumed was the weakest.
Don’t hang the socks the right way to dry on the clothesline? Rita Claiborne demanded answers and funneled her force at the one who could barely speak.
If the world would be damning to her little girl, then Rita needed to make her tough enough to survive it and succeed. It was as if she knew sending Loretta door-to-door to ask for extra rolls of toilet paper would force her to witness the giving of others.
This forged in her an “enduring, deep balance of toughness and tenderness,” said Tim Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics. “Strong enough to protect herself but vulnerable enough to understand. That’s one hell of a powerful combination.”
It all led to a defining moment about a decade later in 1981.
After a race near Pittsburgh, Special Olympics officials propositioned her to speak on their behalf for a fundraising contest. A big food company would be handing out an even bigger check to the charity of its choice.
“I don’t talk,” she said.
But they pushed and a close friend prodded and she ended up at the presentation in a new dress, everything about the moment awkward and ill-fitting.
“I had no paper in my hand, no nothing. I was nervous.”
But she wowed the panel anyway with an impromptu speech about what Special Olympics meant to her.
She won that donation, and it was as if doors suddenly began opening and really haven’t stopped since.
“I never had any training, it’s just a gift,” she said of her public speaking.
That gift piggybacked her extraordinary athletic ability — she ran 26 marathons and was honored by Runner’s World Magazine — that culminated in her earning ESPN’s Arthur Ashe award for courage in 1996. She was introduced by Denzel Washington and nailed her acceptance speech in front of the black ties and evening dresses.
Even that, though, was more like another beginning.
To understand, talk to Shriver. He met Claiborne decades ago as she was growing into the ultimate success story of Special Olympics, the organization founded by his mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
Claiborne won herself into the hearts of Tim Shriver’s wife and kids and influenced him with her practicality and ability to treat everyone, no matter what stature, with a perplexing equality.
There was the time she “snapped” him to attention as he stressed over preparations for a gubernatorial appearance. She picked the perfect moment for what has now become her most popular truism: “You know, Tim, the governor puts his pants on the same way you do every morning.”
Shriver still marvels at her insight and timing 20 years later, like when she challenged the Yale Alumni Association to become more involved in Special Olympics.
Her message was, “You all live in one world, and I live in another, and you should consider coming into my world.”
“That was exactly the wrong message, yet exactly the right message to all of those straight suits,” Shriver said. “It was, ‘You need to get these people into our world, where everybody counts and effort is rewarded and there are no barriers.’”
A few years ago, she eulogized Shriver’s mother and even sang in front of the media cameras and the pews packed with the likes of Vice President Joe Biden, Oprah Winfrey, Stevie Wonder and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
She spoke simply yet eloquently, her words carrying just the right weight.
When Tim Shriver first met Claiborne, “everything was running and talking about running and she reached these extraordinary heights — and then she quickly pivoted. She worked on social service issues and helping her community and volunteering … and then she pivoted again.”
Now, she is spreading the word of Special Olympics around the world, from speeches in Panama and Korea to helping build new programs in Africa and India.
She moves confidently and smoothly among cultures, languages and religions. She knows sign language, some Arabic and taught herself Russian by listening to tapes on her Sony Walkman while doing house chores. She has become a beloved member of one family of friends after another, “Aunt Loretta” giving advice to kids, harvesting maple syrup, running country roads and still winning gold medals playing golf and tennis.
She learned to swim, then ice skate as an adult. She is a fourth-degree black belt in karate.
But how would she know, when talking to a group of kindergartners, that she should sit on the floor to better relate on their level? She just knew.
“I think in older cultures,” Tim Shriver said, “they would have made a seat for her in the center of the village, and people would have come and asked her for advice.”
She is striking contrasts of fame and anonymity, of sweetness and sharp edges.
Women fussed over her during a recent Zumba class appearance, but she also walks to the neighborhood Turkey Hill each day and to the Central Market each week to sip tea with old friends, without any notice.
It’s the strangest of things.
She is a thrift store shopper who survives on disability checks, odd jobs and the honorariums she does accept. Even the Disney movie only earned her enough to buy a fixer-upper in the city.
And yet she is good friends with actress Susan Saint James, who attended her 60th birthday party. She has testified before the U.S. Senate. She once got a get-well phone call from Superman, Christopher Reeve.
Just recently she became possibly the first person with an intellectual disability to address world leaders at the United Nations.
“I am here today to represent 200 million people worldwide … You may not see my disability, and that is part of the challenge … I am here before you to ask you to SEE ME. Recognize me, and those like me, when goals and strategies are set. See not our disability, but what we can contribute if we have access to basic services.”
Speaking in grand forums is one thing, but her links to celebrities is quite another, though she cares little for the attention.
She doesn’t offer the stories. Rather, they spill out over homemade pizza and soda and hours of conversation in the living room of close friends Bob and Becky Hollis.
There’s the one about meeting King, the legendary blues guitarist, at the White House a decade ago. He fawned over her at dinner and then expressed his interest in front of George W. Bush.
There also was lunch a couple of years ago with Buffett in Nebraska. The short PR appearance turned into a nearly two-hour, back-and-forth, storytelling session between two people who couldn’t appear more different and yet bonded over their frugality.
And there was the time in an airport when she handed her phone to Kwan, who proceeded to rattle on a mile a minute about Claiborne to star-struck friend Becky Hollis.
“I think (celebrities) can be just ordinary people when they’re with Loretta,” Hollis said.
Better yet, maybe this is the reason why most everyone seems attracted: She is so genuine, grounded and straightforward that the “natural good in her” always rushes to the surface.
Plus, at the time when many retire and begin to slow, it’s as if she burns to spread the message of her life to anyone who can use it, smoothly shifting to fit her audience and surroundings.
Nora Mason has seen it for years and still sounds awed describing it. She met Claiborne through Pennsylvania Special Olympics and now helps arrange many of her speaking engagements and appearances.
She spoke of Claiborne captivating several hundred during a presentation at IBM (“She had the entire room standing up and chanting back to her. They would have done anything Loretta asked them to do”) and how “fired up” she got recently when she challenged Utah students to embrace Unified Sports.
“I think she knows now how she can have such an impact,” Mason said. “Maybe 10 years ago, I think she just did it, just worked her magic. But now she realizes more the impact she has, that gets her excited. Maybe she wants to slow down, but that keeps her going.”
Through it all, evenings like this one speak truest:
She walked to Farquhar Park alone carrying her tennis racket and a bag of balls and a bottle of watered-down Gatorade. She hoped to find a pickup partner to hit with.
It was 93 degrees but felt like 98 with the humidity.
Finally, she ended up playing with a man half her age, who knew her only as a tennis novice like himself.
They rolled through 35 games in the swelter and she never stopped smiling and talking. After that, another partner showed up and they hit around until it became too dark to see.
All the while, Claiborne looks at least 15 years younger than she is, almost as if age hasn’t caught her because she never slows down long enough to let it.
She’s always busy with something, from collecting school supplies for an overseas mission to knitting for some charity to phone meetings as an executive committee member of Special Olympics International.
“Just one of the people who changes your whole life when you meet her,” said Phyllis Seelig, Claiborne’s tennis coach in Special Olympics.
“I have a doctoral degree and I look at her like, ‘Am I doing everything with my God-given talents?” said Linda Meyer, a college professor who met her through Special Olympics. “That’s what I learned from Loretta: Whatever I want to do, I can do. Whatever Loretta wants to do, she accomplishes.”
Whereas running used to be Claiborne’s release, now it is more her therapy, her time to formulate upcoming speeches and presentations, as many as four or five a month. She rarely uses notes.
She crafts impeccable 16-point stars out of parchment paper and paraffin. And she beams over her collection of four- and even five-leaf clovers she picks and presses in her Bible, then proudly gives away to friends.
That she finds these rare clovers in city parks just sounds like something she would do.
One more extraordinary detail most wouldn’t know about.
“I’m just good at looking for them,” she said. “I try to prove to people that it’s not impossible. It just takes patience.”
© 2013 York Daily Record (York, Pa.)
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