A Hero Among Heroes
By David Neff
Global Youth Summit Chaperone, Tennessee
Special to Scholastic News Online

Loretta Claiborne (left) and Kimberly Elise trackside at Mortan Stadium in Dublin, Ireland, before the 1500m run on June 25. (Photo: Suzanne Freeman)
June 15—Loretta Claiborne's motto is "God is my strength and Special Olympics is my joy." It is a motto that has helped carry her through life and has made her one of the most well-known and respected Special Olympic athletes in the world.

Loretta had to overcome many obstacles, both social and physical, to become the athlete that she is today. She was born the fourth of seven children in a poor single-parent family. She was also born partially blind and needed surgery on one of her legs to help her walk. In school she was teased and tormented by classmates who did not understand her differences. At one point, she almost became institutionalized. With the determination of her mother and the friendship of a Special Education teacher, Loretta began to turn her life around. Special Olympics provided Loretta a way to focus her determination and gave her a positive outlet.

Loretta is participating in her 8th World Games competition in Dublin, Ireland in both the 1500 meter and 3000 meter race. Besides competing in Special Olympics, she holds several other honors. She was named Runners World Magazine's Special Athlete of the Quarter Century, Women in Sports Hall of Fame, Special Olympics International Hall of Fame, Special Olympics Pennsylvania Hall of Fame. She has also completed 26 marathons, is a World Games Gold Medalist in the half marathon and bowling, and has had a movie made about her life. Recently she was given an honorary degree from Villanova University in her home state of Pennsylvania.

Loretta travels the world talking to students about overcoming disabilities. She was subject of the 2000 Disney TV Movie "The Story of Loretta Claiborne." Loretta sat down to talk with Scholastic News Online at Morton Stadium in Dublin, Ireland, just before running the 1500 meter race today. Participating in the interview was the actress who protrayed Loretta in the film, Kimberly Elise. Kimberly has also starred in "Beloveded" and "John Q."

Scholastic: What has Special Olympics meant for you?

Loretta: Special Olympics has meant a lot for me. It changed how I think and feel. It also taught me to live on my own. It helped me fulfill my desire to be an athlete. I have been able to make changes and have respect for myself and others. It brought me discipline. It also taught me to live on my own.

Scholastic: What's your advice for kids who with mental disabilities?

Loretta: Become a part of the Special Olympics movement as a unified partner. Volunteer to help. It's about people, no matter what your background.

Scholastic: Disney made a movie about your life. What did you think of it?

Loretta: I thought the movie was wonderful. I don't watch it. I cry. Every child gets to see that every child is important. All children deserve the right to be successful. Success comes from within yourself. You can be successful by being better tomorrow than you were today.

Scholastic: On Monday you reached your personal best in the 3000 meter with a time of 13:01. How does having that record make you feel?

Loretta: We don't keep records in Special Olympics. That's not important to us. What's important is that you throw a softball when before you couldn't throw a softball. You do better than the last time. That's what counts. I always want my record to be better than last time.

Scholastic: What motivates you to participate in Special Olympics?

Loretta: The people. God The athletes.

Scholastic asked actress Kimberly Elise about her experience portraying such a well-known and respected athlete.

Scholastic: How does a movie such as "The Loretta Claiborne Story" spread the message of individuals with mental disabilities?

Kimberly: A movie is a good way to present a story in a language and format everyone can understand and appreciate. It builds emotion and compassion and understanding. It allows you to live in the other person's shoes. It broadens the prospective of a person.

Scholastic: How does the experience of working on this movie differ from some of the others you have done?

Kimberly: They are all different. Loretta's was my favorite. It was also my greatest challenge. I came out of it feeling that I really grew as a person. Her story is so strong and so many people were watching who are so close to her and care so much. I knew they would be watching how I portrayed her.

Scholastic: How does the disabled community feel about your portrayal in the movie?

Kimberly: It's been rewarding for me coming here [to the Special Olympic World Games] and meeting the athletes and parents who come up to me and say thank you. They are so used to seeing themselves portrayed as victims and as pitiful and this movie shows them as poeple who have strength and courage.

Loretta ended with some advice for success: "talk to someone you don't know." The 2003 World Games personifies this recommendation, she says. It is an event that provides an opportunity for athletes to communicate that normally would never.

"The Story of Loretta Claiborne" is part of the "SO Get Into It" teaching kit which can be obtained through the Special Olympics. Click here for more information.

You can find out more about Loretta at her own Web site: www.lorettaclaiborne.com.