Loretta Claiborne remains the heart of Special Olympics

LOS ANGELES, Calif. -- Loretta Claiborne, the closest figure Special Olympics has to Michael Jordan, walks out from the clubhouse Monday at the Wilson Municipal Golf Course in Griffith Park and heads snap to attention.

An attendant approaches with prepared remarks for a speech Claiborne will give later, after her nine-hole round. Claiborne politely declines his paper offering. "I just speak and it comes out better," she says, sending the man on his way.

She climbs into her cart, begrudgingly; she wishes she could walk and get exercise, but time today is tight. She is here as part of a Unified Sports event preceding the World Games golf competitions later in the week, and a host of ambassadors and celebrities are playing behind her.

Claiborne glances at her flip phone that she bought at a dollar store back home in York, Pennsylvania. Eighteen voice mails are waiting, many of them old and outdated. She has no plans to listen. "I tell people, 'Don't call me because I'm not going to answer,'" she says. "It eats up my minutes."

Forty-five years after she first competed in a Special Olympics event, Claiborne, who will turn 62 on Aug. 14, is still nothing if not herself. It is part of her charm. It is also part of her power. One could argue no athlete's voice is more valued by the organization, now or ever, than Claiborne's.

Claiborne has never seen herself as different, even if others did. Growing up in the 1950s and '60s, she endured shame and shunning. Being black and female would have been enough to break most; Claiborne also had to deal with partial blindness and an intellectual disability.

"Imagine you go to school and someone says, 'Don't walk next to me. You walk behind me.' Imagine that," Claiborne says. "Or, 'Oh, you can't sit here.' It was like a disease in my time, just because I didn't learn as fast as everybody else."

She is paired today with Johanna Pramstaller, from Austria, as well as the newly crowned Miss United States Summer Priester, of South Carolina. Claiborne still plays golf once a week with a Special Olympics league in York, and sports still anchor her life. On the way to the first tee, she explains that she also bowls three league games on Saturday mornings and plays soccer on Saturday evenings, with a pair of 4-mile bike rides in between and hour-long runs each afternoon. (Come December, her schedule will go like this: figure skating on Mondays, floor hockey on Tuesdays, track and field on Wednesdays, downhill skiing on Thursdays, tennis on Fridays, basketball on Saturdays. All for Special Olympics. "I also do Zumba and volleyball outside of Special Olympics," she says.)

If that isn't enough, she's also a fourth-degree black belt in Isshin-ryu, which she has practiced for 28 years. "Idle hands is the work of the devil," she says, echoing her late mother's mantra.

Halfway through the first hole Monday, Claiborne sends an errant shot toward a bunker. "Bite! Bite!" she yells, to no avail. The ball lands on the beach. "Oh, gee! I don't look good in a doggone bikini. I lost that shape many moons ago."

She sinks her putt but is chafed that Pramstaller, obviously an avid and proud golfer, played her ball when Claiborne was away. "I think this kid's a little bossy," she says on the way to the second tee.

It doesn't take long for Claiborne to bridge that gap. A rules official informs them they should be playing an alternate-shot format instead of their own balls, and soon it is Pramstaller who hits into the sand.

"I'm sorry!" she yells to Claiborne.

"That's OK," Claiborne replies. "It happens."

A few minutes later, they begin high-fiving after each shot.

Claiborne doesn't hesitate when asked to name the most influential person in her life. It is Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver. She still remembers the day they met.

"It was 1972, right here in L.A., at Drake Stadium. I was running the 300-meter dash and a girl cut me off just as I was ready to turn on the engines," Claiborne says. "I was angry, and the coach realized that, so he said, 'I'm going to take her back to the dorm.' We passed this woman, and she came over and talked to me, kind of read my mind that I was about to have an outburst. She said, 'Hello, how are you? My name is Eunice' -- she didn't say Kennedy or Shriver -- 'how were your games?' It settled me. I said, 'Good.' She said, 'Are you having a good time?' I said, 'Yes.'"

After they parted, Claiborne's coach looked at her. "You know that lady who talked to you? She's the one who started all this."

They didn't meet again for nine years, but when they did, Kennedy Shriver said something else Claiborne has never forgotten: "I want to be your friend. Will you write me?" Claiborne still has the card Kennedy Shriver gave her that day.

"I used to call her Mrs. Shriver," Claiborne says, "and she said, 'You don't call me Mrs. Shriver, you call me Eunice. We're friends, understand that?' That meant a lot to me -- to have somebody want to be my friend. She didn't want to be my friend because I could run fast or because I could beat someone up. And we were friends until the day she passed."

Special Olympics, and sports in general, gave Claiborne a place to belong. "It settled my anger," she says. "I used to take a lot of medicine because I would get so angry. When I come to Special Olympics, nobody calls me names, nobody bothers me. It's the best thing that's ever happened to me. It's better than any pill I've ever taken."

Claiborne won the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYS in 1996. She has held court with dignitaries and introduced President Bill Clinton at the World Summer Games in 1995. But she is far from finished.

When she gives a speech, she mandates "walking the walk."

"Don't just go back to your country, your government, and say, 'We want this,'" she says. "Be persistent and don't stop until you accomplish something. Because we have come so far with disability rights, yet we have so far to go."

She serves on the board of Special Olympics and is unafraid to speak her mind. "I tell them really quick, if I have a chance to talk and someone cuts me off or they're short on time, I will stick my hand up and say what I have to say. Because it's not for Loretta, it's for the movement."

Midway through Monday's round, Claiborne decides she has had enough of the cart. She grabs her club and takes off running up the fairway between shots, the one-time 3:03 marathoner having sat still long enough. She needs to go.

It looks funny at first. Claiborne, after all, is a celebrity here, not to mention a woman nearing 62. But she doesn't view herself any differently now than when she was being shunned all those years ago.

"I'm just a person," she says. "I'm still just a person."