For a while back in the 1930s the initials E.K. appeared several times on a board at the Hyannis Port Yacht Club on Cape Cod. They indicated the champion sailor for those particular years in the 18-foot wooden-sloop division. Edward (Ted) Kennedy, the senator from Massachusetts and the last of Joseph and Rose Kennedy's nine children, would boast from time to time that the initials were his. But if sister Eunice, 11 years his senior, was around, she would gleefully point out, "Teddy, you were only a baby at the time."
The E.K.'s indeed belonged to Eunice.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of a sports movement that changed the world, died last week at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, Mass., dozens of members of America's most famous family at her side. She was 88 and had battled for over a year after a series of strokes.
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 to have advanced the rights and enriched the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. There is virtually no country on earth where Special Olympics has not taken hold, the result of the vision and sweat of a woman driven by her boundless energy and the experience of her late sister Rosemary. The oldest of the Kennedys' five daughters, Rosemary was born in 1918 (three years before Eunice) with an intellectual disability, into a world where people like her often were not allowed in public, much less turned loose in athletic competition. Eunice decided she would do something about that.
August 23, 2009
But while Special Olympics is unquestionably her legacy, Eunice is remembered by her family as much for being an athlete herself, a feisty competitor who, in the words of her son Tim Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics, "insisted that the program started as a sports program and should stay a sports program."
That's because Eunice was always an athlete at heart. She sailed, she swam, she was a graceful runner, she played tennis at Stanford, and she played quarterback in the family's celebrated touch football games on the lawn at Hyannisport. When she got too old to stand behind center, she would still call the plays. "I can still hear her," says Bobby Shriver, the oldest of five children born to Eunice and her surviving husband, Sargent Shriver. "'O.K., 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 bit 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 that continues today—but also sweat and tears. "One of the first things Mrs. Shriver ever told me after we met," says 56-year-old Loretta Claiborne, one of the most celebrated Special Olympics athletes, "was that she was going to come out and watch me run. She took the sports seriously and looked on us as athletes. That's important."
What Eunice did—and she understood this from the beginning—was use sport as a vehicle to show what this misunderstood population could do. "Everybody told my mother that mentally 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 exult if you win, you get sad if you lose, and you go back and try harder."
In the nascent days of Special Olympics, famous athletes such as Rafer Johnson and Frank Gifford got involved, recognizing, as Eunice did, that competition was exactly what the mentally challenged athlete would need. That's how the organization grew into a worldwide force.
As Eunice grew weaker in recent weeks, 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 swimming hole. 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.