Loretta Claiborne was the middle of seven children in a poor, single-parent family. Born partially blind and mildly retarded, she was unable to walk or talk until age 4. Eventually, though, she began to run. And before she knew it, she had crossed the finish line of 25 marathons, twice placing among the top 100 women in the Boston Marathon. She’s carried the torch in the International Special Olympics, has won medals in dozens of its events, and also holds the current women’s record in her age group for the 5000 meters at 17 minutes.
Today, Claiborne is a celebrated athlete who was honored in 1996 with ESPN’s ESPY Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. Her life is recounted in Walt Disney Productions The Loretta Claiborne Story (originally broadcast on ABC-TV and now on videocassette) and in the biography In Her Stride published by WorldScapes. Considering all of Claiborne’s achievements, these are just small steps in her life’s mission to show that persons with mental and physical disabilities are equal to those without.
“I figured if my story could change a person’s mind about another person, or especially a child’s mind about another child, then it was the right thing to do,” Claiborne says. Now in her early fifties, the athlete recalls a time when children taunted her for being different and how the taunting turned her into an angry young woman who was expelled from high school and fired from a job.
Although she loved to run and used her speed and strength to protect herself in fights against cruel classmates, she credits the Special Olympics with helping her realize that her tremendous athletic talent could be used to do good.
Claiborne was first introduced to Special Olympics by social worker Janet McFarland (played by Emmy Award-winner Camryn Manheim in the movie). She credits McFarland as well as her family, community, educators, Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her own strong spirituality with giving her the confidence necessary to become a world-class runner.
“If it weren’t for sports, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I was very angry before and sports was the arena that turned that around for me,” Claiborne says. “I got support from family, community and God — he is the strength of all and can make anything possible.” The Loretta Claiborne Story not only outlines Claiborne’s personal and spiritual journey, but it shows her joyful, sometimes mischievous personality.
“In the simplest terms, it’s about possibility,” says executive producer Suzanne de Passe. “Loretta Claiborne’s life is uplifting and full of a sense of renewal. But it’s not humorless. It doesn’t hit you like a freight train with a somber, one-note refrain. This is also about a very engaging, funny personality.”
Running is not the only part of Claiborne’s life. She holds a black belt in karate, communicates in four languages, including sign language, and holds honorary doctorate degrees from Quinnipiac College and Villanova University, making her the first person with mental retardation known to receive such honors, according to the Special Olympics organization.
However, Claiborne says the most rewarding part of her life has been her involvement with the Special Olympics, and she wants to continue helping people with mental retardation and physical disabilities succeed. She advises them, “Find an opportunity and seize it. Be the best you can be, and never let anyone doubt you.”
Claiborne runs every day — often about 5 miles, even when she plans to go only three or four. Just for the joy of it, the joy of the moment. It’s how she lives her life. “I don’t really look toward the future because you don’t know what tomorrow will be bring,” she says. “You have to live your life for today.”