For a while back in the 1930s the initials E.K. appeared several times on a board at the Hyannis Yacht Club on Cape Cod. They indicated the champion sailor for that particular year in the 18-foot wooden sloop division.
The E.K.'s indeed belonged to Eunice.
Eunice received SI's first Sportsman of the Year Legacy Award last December, recognizing her as the founder of Special Olympics and the single most important person ever in advancing the rights and enriching the lives of the intellectually challenged. There is virtually nowhere on earth that Special Olympics has not taken hold, the result of the vision and sweat of a woman driven by both her own boundless energy and the experience of her late sister.
But while Special Olympics is unquestionably her legacy, the Kennedy family as much remembers a woman who was an athlete herself, a feisty competitor, who, in the words of her son,
"'Okay, you go over there and knock the big kid over, so we can throw a pass to the little kid.' She always wanted everyone involved, but she also wanted to win." The image of the Kennedys as America's Alpha Family was every much as evident in Eunice as in the male members of her tanned Camelot clan.
Eunice insisted, too, that every Special Olympics athlete take his or her competition seriously, so that a meet included not just love -- one of Eunice's early ideas was to have a "hugger" available for each athlete who finishes an event, a practice continues today -- but also blood, sweat and tears. "One of the first things Mrs. Shriver ever told me after we met," says 53-year-old
What Eunice did -- and she understood this from the beginning -- was use sport as a vehicle to show what this misunderstood society of the mentally challenged could do. "Everybody told my mother that intellectually challenged kids would start crying if they lost," says Bobby Shriver, "to which my mother said, 'So what?' 'That's what everyone does.' Her thought was, you compete, you exalt if you win, you get sad if you lose and you go back and try harder."
In the nascent days of Special Olympics, athletes such as
As Eunice grew weaker last week, the family reminisced about her fighting spirit and her vitality. Hundreds of family photos came out, and Bobby remembers one in particular. It showed a young, exuberant Eunice swinging from a long rope about to dive into a body of water. He doesn't remember where it was taken, only that it showed the spirit of a remarkable woman, a spirit that she passed on to so many others who didn't seem to have a chance.