Shriver’s can-do spirit

Boston Globe, August 12, 2009

As a Special Olympics mom, I have had Eunice Kennedy Shriver much in my thoughts these days. Nothing like Special Olympics existed before Shriver came along because no one even thought of it. If you had a developmentally disabled child like mine, you and he were an object of pity. But Shriver knew firsthand, from playing with her developmentally delayed sister Rosemary, that many things in this life are possible; you just need to have the necessary supports and the right attitude.

What moves me the most about Shriver is that she created the reality of Special Olympics from nothing. She thought there should be a way to bring sports to the intellectually disabled, and so one summer she put a camp together in her own backyard.

It takes a particular kind of will to charge into an area so uncharted as organizing cognitively impaired people into teams and teaching them for the first time about rules, techniques, and teamwork. To get right into the action. But by doing so, Shriver — determined and capable — became the very picture of the Special Olympics volunteer.

Now an integral part of the Special Olympics organization, the volunteers are the force that reaches even the most impaired, the seemingly uncoordinated, and the most combative of people, and pulls them together into a team. I have often said that if they could get my son Nat to understand a sport and compete, they could get anyone to.

I believe Nat’s is a typical Special Olympics experience. His involvement with sports began at age 10, during one of the hardest periods in our family’s history. Our home was like a war zone, where my husband and I could never relax because we did not know what Nat would do next: break his brother’s toys, urinate in a plant, fly into a rage at one of us. But there was one place in our lives where we did not have to worry: Special Olympics gymnastics practice.

This unexpected island that we had found in a dimly lit gym at MIT gave us a place where we could watch Nat learn a new skill — a gym mat routine — and simply enjoy ourselves. A drama major at Emerson College, the coach was not even specially trained. She just had “it,” that magical blend of intuition, good judgment, consistency, and humor. Nat could feel her confidence — in herself and in him — and he was able to spread his wings and fly there. That one positive experience, in the middle of a terrible time, gave us hope and helped us get through it.

Gymnastics led to swimming, which led to basketball. By then we had a little posse of parents like us, and an actual social life. But best of all, we could see that Nat was really beginning to understand about sports, and about playing (nicely) with other people. This boy, whose favorite activities used to be twirling string and talking to himself, or pinching other kids, was now excited — ecstatic, really — to go to practices in loud gyms and cold swimming pools. It was always the coaches, the volunteers, who made the difference. They always found a way to connect with him and engage him. It used to be so hard to know what was in Nat’s head, but when it is time to go to “swim races,” as he calls it, that smile tells us everything.

I have heard that Shriver would get into the pool with Special Olympics athletes even as recently as a year or two ago, and coach them the way she did at Camp Shriver, in 1962, still not taking no for an answer. I can imagine her in the water, intense and focused, barking directions with a sharp voice. I think that if she were in the pool with Nat, he would not know that he was in the presence of greatness, a Kennedy legacy, or anything like that. But I know that with her sharp, clear directions, and her attitude of “you can do it,” mixed with “you’d better do it,” he would recognize her as a coach. And that is probably all Eunice would want, too.