Eunice Kennedy Shriver grew up rich. She grew up with opportunities and chances and a name that would invariably open up doors for her no matter where she went.
She did not care.
The sister of President John F. Kennedy, Shriver opted to use her name, not to open doors for herself, but to build entire houses for others, and, in 1968, cemented her legacy when she founded the Special Olympics. Shriver worked tirelessly for the next 40 years to create opportunities for athletes of all shapes, sizes and abilities, giving those with developmental disorders a platform to compete and to succeed.
This year’s Summer World Games will be held in Los Angeles with the opening ceremonies scheduled for Saturday, July 25. Here’s what you need to know about Shriver:
1. The Special Olympics Began as ‘Camp Shriver’ on her Maryland Farm
Shriver first began organizing for, what she called, ‘Camp Shriver‘ in the early 1960’s, using funds from the Kennedy Foundation to create programs for the intellectually disabled. She held the first Camp in 1962 on her own farm in Maryland before moving the games to Chicago in 1968.
The first-ever Special Olympics were held at Soldier Field and have evolved to become one of the most inspiring events in the entire world, impacting the lives of athletes and their families for decades. The foundation has also worked to become more preventive, looking to find answers to developmental disorders before they even begin.
Peter Wheeler, the chief communications officer of the Special Olympics, described the program’s evolution:
When people meet individuals with intellectual disabilities, it invariably makes people change the way they think. We say our program is the best export ever developed in this country. Take it anywhere in the world and it’s accepted, no matter what your philosophy, religion or political background.
2. Shriver Was Inspired by her Sister to Organize the Special Olympics
Shriver was born into the glitz and glamour of the Kennedy family and the top-tier of American fame and politics, but her sister, Rosemary, faced different challenges, including developmental disorders that severely limited her day-to-day life.
So, one day, Eunice decided to do something about that. After a solid athletic career in college, Shriver discovered that sports could serve as common ground to unite individuals, sparking the initial idea behind the Special Olympics.
Her son, Tim, explained Shriver’s thoughts behind creating the event:
She is really tough and ambitious and strong-willed, but she also has this vulnerable and empathic side. After watching the struggles of her sister and visiting institutions and seeing this enormous amount of human suffering, and at the same time coming from a place where women didn’t have equal opportunity in sports, she just couldn’t take it anymore.
3. The Special Olympics Now Includes More Than Three Million People With Intellectual Disabilities
Although she faced skeptics who questioned the longevity of the Special Olympics after the event’s less-than-auspicious start, Shriver never wavered in her determination to allow athletes, all athletes, to compete at the highest level possible.
Today, more than three million Special Olympics athletes train year-round, competing in all 50 states and 181 different countries with two different events, the World Winter Games and World Summer Games, staged regularly. Countries who once refused to even acknowledge the presence of development disorders now regularly send athletes to compete and parents who never thought their children would be able to walk let alone run, stand on the sidelines as those same children are awarded gold medals.
In 2008, Sports Illustrated named Shriver the first recipient of the Sportsman of the Year Legacy Award and the following year, her portrait was unveiled at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. She was the first person to not serve as President or First Lady to have her portrait commissioned by the NPG.
4. Shriver Also Helped Found the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development
In addition to her work with the Special Olympics, Shriver was also a key founder of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The foundation works to help improve the lives of those diagnosed with development disorders through research, grants and funding.
The foundation has worked to fund clinical trials and scientific research, even looking to establish preventative care for patients. In 2008, Congress officially changed the NICHD’s name to the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
5. She Was Married to Sargent Shriver & The Couple Had Five Children
The former Kennedy marred Sargent Shriver in an elaborate ceremony at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City on May 23, 1953. Shriver was also involved in the political world and served as the U.S. Ambassador to France from 1968-70 before being named the Vice Presidential candidate on the George McGovern ticket in 1972.
The couple had five children together; Robert, Maria, Timothy, Mark and Anthony. Of course, Maria has built her own political path, serving as the First Lady of California when her ex-husband, Arnold Shwarzenegger was governor of the state. The Shrivers also had 19 grand children.
Kennedy Shriver passed away in August 2009 at Cape Cod Hospital. She had suffered a stroke and broken hip in 2005 and was never able to recover.