Special Olympics athlete Loretta Claiborne is a world-class competitor and one of the most inspirational and remarkable women of our time. For Loretta Claiborne, Special Olympics revealed the champion within—even after many years of having her talents and abilities denied and ignored by others. Loretta did not talk or walk until the age of 4; she was later diagnosed with intellectual disabilities. As one of seven children born to a single mother, the odds were stacked against her. Doctors advised the family to put Loretta, who is also partially blind, into an institution. Loretta’s mother refused.
When Loretta went to school, she was taunted and bullied so much, she tried to fight back—or just used her feet to simply run away. In 1970, Loretta found Special Olympics; her anger, athletic energy and her gifts found an outlet.
She soon began to excel as both a world-class runner and an advocate for people with intellectual disabilities. Today, Loretta is one of the most accomplished and celebrated of all Special Olympics athletes. She has competed in more than 26 marathons, finishing with the fastest 25 women runners in the Pittsburgh Marathon and twice with the top-100 runners in the Boston Marathon. She won gold medals in the 1991 and 1999 Special Olympics World Games half-marathon. Loretta holds honorary doctorates from Villanova University and Quinnipiac College, speaks five languages, earned a black belt in karate, and was honored with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. She is a member of the Special Olympics International Board of Directors.
Loretta continues to change the way the world views people with intellectual disabilities (ID). Before it was publicly acceptable to advocate for people with ID, she courageously championed them and spoke out, bringing light to the horrible injustices that this population faces all over the world. Loretta set out to change attitudes, one person by one person, demonstrating the benefit of inclusive and accepting communities and how the world is a better place when every person is given the opportunity to reach their full potential. Loretta’s courage has changed the course of history for people with ID and is helping give them their rightful place in society. Her story is so powerful that in 2000, Disney produced a movie called “The Loretta Claiborne Story” about her strength and triumph.
In 2001 she was among speakers who testified to the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations on the health status and needs of persons with intellectual disabilities. During the hearing, Loretta stopped reading her testimony midway through to speak in heartfelt words about her own struggle to get quality medical care and her current situation at the time where she could not secure surgical treatment for her injured knee because of her disabilities and her health care provider’s disregard for her situation. The testimony led to a Surgeon General’s call to action to bridge the gap in health disparities for people with intellectual disabilities. In September 2013, Loretta joined a roundtable discussion during the United Nations General Assembly High Level Meeting on Disability and addressed the gathering of high-level world leaders, calling on them to truly ‘see’ people with intellectual disabilities and recognize that they can contribute and achieve in society if given access to basic services.
She uses the power of sport to create social change and inclusion and to promote development and peace. At the age of 50, after being an accomplished runner, Loretta learned to figure skate, eventually competing in her first Special Olympics World Winter Games. Loretta has used the power of sport to instill discipline and self-worth and taught us that adversity means nothing if you are able to step outside of your comfort zone.
Loretta exemplifies perseverance and the ability of the human spirit to overcome obstacles and failures. She tells people of all abilities, “Be the best you can be and never let anyone doubt you. Find your opportunity and see what you can do.”