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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 March 2019

Special Olympics hero Loretta Claiborne: 'thank you, UAE'

The athlete, who has completed 26 marathons and is a world record holder, thanked the UAE for its inclusion efforts

Women must be included in sport because it empowers them to dream big, activist and runner Loretta Claiborn told an audience at the Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed majlis on the eve of the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi opening ceremony.

Ms Claiborne overcame poverty and bullying to become one of the most celebrated athletes of the Special Olympics and today serves as its chief inspiration officer and vice chair of the Special Olympics International Board of Directors.

“I used to manage emotions with my fists and my feet. But now I manage my emotions by going out to run. I run five miles. I hope for you women out there that you find something you like and I guarantee you it will help relieve the pressure,” she said. .

Ms Claiborne was born partially blind and intellectually challenged in Pennsylvania in 1953. Her life changed when a school counselor advised her to sign up for the Special Olympics when she was 17.

To date, she has completed 26 marathons, twice finishing in the top 100 women in the Boston Marathon. She is the Special Olympics world record holder for her age group in the 5,000 metres, with a time of 17 minutes.

“When I grew up I was a 'retarded person' – a term we do not like to use today,” said Ms Claiborne.

“Thank you to the UAE. We love your terminology: people of determination.”

She was unable to walk or talk until age four but her mother, Rita, refused to institutionalise her, which was common at the time. Instead, her mother insisted that she attend and complete her education at a local school.

“When I look back, I didn’t have a voice,” said Ms Claiborne.

“I didn’t have self worth. I thought I was dirt. I say to myself all the time that if it wasn’t for what one woman (her school counselor) did for me, I wouldn’t be here – I would be in prison or six-feet under.”

Ms Claiborne not only suffered discrimination because of her intellectual disability, but because of her gender.

“The community looked at me differently. Not because of the colour of my skin – although, yes, there was the civil rights movement at that time – but because I was a woman with an intellectual disability,” she said.

She recalled petitioning her high school to set up a women’s track and field team.

“Women in my country didn’t do sport because we were told we couldn’t do sport. I remember going around with a petition and then taking it to the principle.They told me, ‘we don’t want retards on the team’.’

Ms Claiborne was joined onstage by Emirati Chaica Al Qasimi, the first female Special Olympics referee from the Middle East and North Africa region, and fellow Olympiads Mariam Ahmed from Kuwait, Samia Siddi from Saudi Arabia and Mariam Adel Azzab from Egypt.

The panel was moderated by Zahra Lari, the first Emirati figure skater to compete internationally.

“As an athlete myself, I would like to say she is my hero,” said Ms Lari.

“She shows women all over the world that you can achieve anything you set your mind to. Nothing or no one can stop you because you are female or because you are unique. People like her make a difference in this world.”

Ms Claiborne continues to practice 10 sports a year for the Special Olympics and runs every day – she is 65 years old.

She stressed that female athletes must be judged on actions, not appearance.

“They shouldn’t be looking at your hijab, they should be looking at your skates,” she told Ms Lari.

Arout 40 per cent of the 7,500 athletes competing at the Games this year are women.

Updated: March 14, 2019 12:23 PM

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