LORETTA CLAIBORNE learned early in life that she had a gift for running—and a difficult track ahead. When Loretta came around the corner of Ferguson Elementary School, in her hometown of York, Pa., leading all the other sixth-grade boys and girls in the 600-yard run, one teacher, the woman who had sniffed before the race that someone like Loretta couldn't compete with the normal kids, refused to accept it.
"I got to the finish line first, and that teacher said, 'Oh, that girl must've cheated and cut through the school,'?" says Claiborne, who was born partially blind and did not walk or talk until she was four. "Well, you couldn't cut through that school even if you wanted to." She takes a sip of soda and stares straight ahead, perhaps remembering other occasions when someone made her feel she wasn't good enough, told her she didn't belong.
She was the fourth of seven children born to Rita Claiborne, a single mother who raised her family in York's Parkway housing projects. She was put in alternative education in kindergarten and stayed there. "I was tested, and they told me I didn't keep up with regular learning," Loretta says. "Physically I was stronger and faster, but mentally I just didn't fit. And when you're a square peg, they don't know what else to do with you."
Loretta wanted to be on the school safety patrol, but special-ed kids weren't allowed. She helped raise money through candy sales to organize a girls' track team at William Penn Senior High, but before the first meet a teammate said, "We don't want retards on our team." Loretta never got to compete. She shakes her head at the memory.
Claiborne is 55 now, and she still runs up against rejection. A few years ago it took three trips to her bank in York before she could get them to give her a credit card. "What is it?" she asked a bank official. "Do you think I'm slow? Do you think I can't handle it?"
Claiborne has accomplished far too much to dwell on her anger. Her only lingering physical limitation is her impaired vision. She has testified before the U.S. Senate on the importance of healthcare for people with intellectual disabilities; chatted up Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton; been the subject of a made-for-TV Disney movie; run 26 marathons, with a best time of 3:03; earned a fourth-degree black belt in karate; won countless medals in a variety of athletic events; and emerged as the person who, in the words of Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver, "is the very embodiment of our movement."
But it would be wrong to think Claiborne is not fueled, at least in part, by painful memories. "I was black, I was a girl, I was in need"—she refuses to use the word poor—"and people told me I was mentally retarded," she says matter-of-factly. "So I guess I didn't have it too easy. People who ride the little bus never forget."
But in her 25-plus years as a Special Olympics athlete and public representative, Claiborne has become socially sophisticated and verbally adroit. She is a motivational speaker, owns her house, pays her bills and has been on her own since her mother died in 1994. But she's never had a driver's license. She concedes that she worries about decision making if she were behind the wheel. "What if I had an accident and somebody sues me?" says Claiborne. "I wouldn't say I'm as quick as the average person. But what I am is wiser."
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Claiborne didn't utter a word until she was four but made up for lost time once she had a platform.