When Marty Sheets, who was born with Down syndrome, was about 4, a doctor told his parents that because of his disability he would never even learn to tie his own shoes.

Back home, Sheets learned how to do it that same day.

“He was a gentle person,” said his father, David Sheets. “But one thing about Marty, he had determination.”

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Sheets went on to become one of the most prominent Special Olympic athletes in the world, winning approximately 250 medals in everything from downhill skiing to weightlifting. He chatted with President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton, hobnobbed with celebrities and became one of the primary ambassadors of the organization.

“When we looked for a person to represent the Special Olympics around the world,” said Timothy Shriver, chairman of the organization, “someone with toughness, compassion, grit and love of sport, Marty would always surface to the top of the list.”

Sheets, 62, died May 21 at home in Greensboro, N.C. He had been suffering from dementia for the last five years, said his father, and recently contracted pneumonia.

He competed in Special Olympic events, where one of his specialties was power lifting, until about 2009.

In 2010, because of his health problems, he retired from the stock room of a Macy’s department store where he had been employed for nearly 40 years.

Sheets showed his determination at the first Special Olympics in Chicago in 1968, but not on the playing fields. He had been chosen to be one of the 1,000 athletes at the event, but fell severely ill and couldn’t compete.

He forced himself out of bed to attend the closing banquet, where the founder of the Special Olympics, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, spotted him and gave him a gold medal “for your guts and for your effort.”

Eunice Shriver, who was the sister of John F. Kennedy and died in 2009, probably didn’t give Sheets the medal just to be nice.

“My mother did not award people who did not perform,” Timothy Shriver said in an interview this week. “She was all about enabling people to do something and then rewarding them when they did.

“But there was something about Marty that caused her to do something she would not ordinarily do. She must have seen something in him.”

Sheets was born March 31, 1953, in Raleigh, N.C. Doctors advised his parents to consider institutionalizing him, but they rejected that, raising him at home and enrolling him in public schools.

His mother Iris, who also survives him, played a key role in his development, David Sheets said, as did his two younger sisters who also survive him: Nancy Grantham and Jamie Gulledge.

Marty Sheets enjoyed wrestling in middle school and briefly competed. But his participation in sports greatly increased with the advent of the Special Olympics where he could compete against others who also had intellectual disabilities.

He competed not only in weightlifting, but also swimming, golf, skiing, tennis and track and field, and was also chosen to engage with celebrities at events that raised awareness of the movement. He skied with Billy Kidd, played golf with Gary Player and chatted with many sports giants, including Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and Pele.

In 1995 he sat with the Clintons at the opening ceremonies of the Special Olympics World Summer Games in New Haven, Conn.

He witnessed the tremendous growth of the movement that now has thousands of events worldwide for millions of athletes with intellectual disabilities. The World Summer Games comes this year to Los Angeles, where 7,000 participants will be competing at a variety of venues beginning July 25 for nine days.

“At the first World Games, we were looked at as just people,” Sheets told the Charlotte Observer in 1999. “Now we’re looked at as athletes.”

© 2015 Los Angeles Times
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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