Free Spirit Award

Speech by Eunice Kennedy Shriver

At the Presentation of

The Free Spirit Award

October 20, 1993

Thank you for the warm words of praise and for your gracious welcome. It's a delight to be here with Al Neuharth, Charles Overby, Peter Prichard, my good friend John Seigenthaler and members of the Free Spirit Award Committee.

Your award honors the tens of thousands of Special Olympians in all parts of the world, their families and volunteers who do the quiet work of organizing the games. They are truly people who are other-centered, not self-centered.

Recently we watched on television the violence in Somalia, Haiti and Los Angeles by individuals who felt they were being deprived of their human rights.

Yet people with mental retardation worldwide have, for thousands of years, been deprived of their human rights. Why have they-and their families-not resorted to violence? Why is their response so different than what happened in those scenes of unrest?

I think the answer is that individuals with mental retardation have taught and inspired all of us-regardless of race, intelligence, color, wealth, sex and age-to work together as friends, to give of our hearts, minds, and physical abilities to a great unifying cause: the pursuit of happiness, discovery, excellence and transcendence.

It is hard for me to imagine a more fitting term to describe the members of Special Olympics than "free spirit." Not only the athletes themselves, but their families who come to the games with them and the volunteers who give their time and love.

They are free spirits because they are free of the old biases that consigned the mentally retarded to the margins of life.

They are free of the despair that says the mentally retarded will never be able to hold a job, be of service or celebrate life.

They are spirits because, if you have ever been to a Special Olympics track meet in your home town, you saw the spirited competition. These athletes didn't run, or throw or leap because they were out to get big money, or because they wanted to wave their fingers and yell "we're number one!"

It is none of that in Special Olympics. They competed because the spirit within them took over. It moved them to defy the odds.

It moved them to realize that a disability does not mean no ability. It moved them to understand if they can compete on the athletic field, they can also win a place in an office or worksite; belong to social clubs or groups; join churches or temples. Twenty five years ago, when Special Olympics was started, I remember watching Toni Marie Chellemi, a girl of 18 with Down Syndrome. Toni Marie was my first heroine in Special Olympics.

She was a gymnast who appeared on national television, day after day, on a public service spot showing the entire nation her gymnastic skills-and telling all of us "This is what I do, and I can do it better than 90 percent of you who are watching me." In my 25 years of working in Special Olympics, I have been aware that, on one level, it is about games, play and sports. But, on another, it is about the spiritual.

If we rise above our lower selves, if we change our daily lives, if we work to find the good in other people, then we can connect with the spiritual forces that measure true progress: compassion, love, sharing our time and wealth.

I know we have some members of the press here this evening-including some editors from USA Today. I have some hard news for you: Special Olympics is the world's largest sports program. Our athletes compete in 23 Olympic-type winter and summer sports. 250 athletes are running a 26 mile marathon-many of them in under 3 hours and one of them in 2 hours, 29 minutes-and that's with the world marathon record at 2 hours, 7 minutes. Special Olympics athletes have run 100 meters in less than 12 seconds.

A Special Olympics athlete recently came fourth in the United States Powerlifting Competition, lifting four times his body weight.