One reporter's brief and fleeting moment with Eunice Kennedy Shriver
Way back in my college days—not the recent college days but the first time around—my roommate, Mandy, who was majoring in special education, urged me to join her as a volunteer at the Michigan State Special Olympic Winter Games.
I was studying sports medicine back then, and I was an avid skier. I'll admit the thought of getting some free skiing in at Sugar Loaf Mountain, where the Michigan State Winter Special Olympic Games were held each year, was hard to pass up. While I did get some great skiing in that year on my off hours, I got a whole lot more as I helped man the alpine ski course and other events. To put it simply, I loved it! I knew I'd return again and volunteer as often as I could throughout my tenure at Central Michigan University. I did. I returned again and again to volunteer at both summer and winter state games.
When I was accepted into the highly competitive sports medicine program at Central Michigan University, I moved from being a general volunteer to being a medical volunteer. That came with a few more perks than I had as a general volunteer. As general volunteer I slept in a cot on the girls' side of a big indoor tennis court known back then as the Sugar Barn each night after an exhausting day of keeping athletes from skiing off course. As a medical volunteer, I was housed in a condominium. Sure, there were other medical volunteers in the condominium, but it was much more comfortable.
Again, though, the digs weren't why I was there, nor was the skiing. It was all for the athletes, who never ceased to inspire me with their courage and their heart. There were a few regulars I recognized each year, like Alex, who nearly ran me down on the ski course when I stood as a gate guard. At one point she was heading right for me. I moved and she moved with me. I thought I was surely going to be flattened, but she figured it out and crossed the finish line without killing me. We had a good laugh after, and I gave her a big hug. Hugs are huge at Special Olympics, or were back then. Everyone gave hugs. The events always ended with a celebration dance where volunteers and athletes dug deep to find what little energy reserve was left to boogie and break dance. I was much younger then.
My second winter—my first as a medical volunteer—was an exceptionally cold winter. We in the medical facility were urging people to wear hats and gloves and to layer, layer, layer. That year, there was some special celebration. I honestly can't remember what it was, but that was the year Eunice Kennedy Shriver came to Michigan. I know it wasn't a dream or a figment of my imagination because along with Eunice came every big Michigan news organization known to man. I remember being in the medical clinic when Chuck Gaidica was interviewing an injured athlete.
Celebrities weren't anything new at the state winter and summer games. There were all kinds of Michigan sports figures and others who spent the games week handing out medals and greeting event winners. But, having Eunice there was big. She was, of course, the founder of Special Olympics, not to mention a Kennedy.
Back then, I have to admit I didn't follow the goings on of the Kennedy family all that much. I knew Maria Shriver from television news, but I really didn't know that much about Eunice. I was in my early 20s and focused on getting through college, so when a woman, who I can't for the life of me remember, grabbed my arm and asked me if I wanted to meet Eunice Kennedy Shriver, I said, why not. This woman introduced me and I shook Eunice Kennedy Shriver's hand, but have no recollection of what we may have said to each other. The meeting was brief. I only recall that she wore a long fur coat, but no hat and no gloves, which in my idealistic twentysomething mind went against all logic as she stood on the snow-covered ski slope on such a cold winter's day.
It seems so anticlimactic really, so brief and fleeting, but I still remember it some twenty or so year later, just as I remember the great times I had volunteering for Special Olympics and what it taught me about people with disabilities. I unfortunately never went back to Special Olympics after I graduated, but I am glad to have witnessed, even for a little bit, the good that Eunice Kennedy Shriver did for people with disabilities.