Event Chair Trish Bear (left) and Special Olympics athlete Loretta Claiborne (right) at the Oct. 15 Breakfast with Champions event in Phoenix.
Kendal O’Connor photo
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Special Olympics athlete inspires Phoenix


Kendal O’Connor

PHOENIX — “My job today is to educate the world, and to educate young people on how it feels to be different,” Loretta Claiborne, a Special Olympics veteran and the ninth annual Breakfast with Champions keynote speaker, said Oct. 15.

Breakfast with Champions is a signature fundraising event held by Special Olympics Arizona, or SOAZ, to help fund its athletes and “reveal their greatness,” punctuated by the addition of Claiborne, a world-renowned Special Olympics athlete and motivational speaker.

Claiborne started competing in the Special Olympics in 1970. At 62 years old, she is a six-time gold medalist, has run in 26 marathons, earned two honorary doctorate degrees and was the first athlete invited to serve on the Special Olympics International Board of Directors.

Although Claiborne is still an avid runner today, she has started a new chapter in her life as a “global messenger,” which includes traveling the world to inspire people, and lobbying especially for those with intellectual or physical disabilities, and for the organization that changed her life.

“Joining the Special Olympics is the best thing that ever happened to me,” Claiborne said. “It gave me a chance to belong to something.”

In a room full of nearly 1,000 people, law enforcement officials, business executives, and families alike, Claiborne addressed many of the challenges she faced growing up “different.”

“Ain’t nothing special about me,” Claiborne said, but her mile-long list of accomplishments and the hope and determination she instills in Special Olympics athletes all over the country proves otherwise.

Born partially blind and intellectually challenged, she could not walk or speak until she was four years old. People told Claiborne she would not be able to graduate from high school and that she would not be an athlete, but every day since she has proved them wrong.

The founder of the Special Olympics, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, was the first friend Claiborne ever had. Shriver was responsible for taking the idea from a “backyard summer camp for people with intellectual disabilities to a global movement.”

Even though one of the goals of the organization is to “reveal greatness” in its athletes, Claiborne said that revealing greatness is not about running the Boston Marathon in less than three hours, having a fourth-degree black belt, or going to the World Games.

“When I reveal my greatness it’s the power that [Shriver] has passed down to me and many, many others, to go out there and change the world for people with intellectual disabilities.”

Claiborne is just one extraordinary example of many athletes that compete every year in various Special Olympics events.

This past July, the 14 members of the SOAZ softball team traveled to Los Angeles to compete in the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games, which had more than 7,000 athletes competing from 177 countries; they took home the gold medal.

“There’s nothing you can’t do if you have will, determination, and heart,” said Event Chair Trish Bear, who has been a volunteer for Special Olympics Arizona for more than eight years.

"You get so much more back than you could possibly give to our athletes, they're just so inspirational," Bear said.

The Senior Development Coordinator for SOAZ, Krista Sanchez, agrees, and said the most rewarding aspect about working for the organization is the inspiration she gets from seeing the athletes "conquer barriers, break down walls, and achieve their goals.”