THERE WAS no small degree of trepidation when, at the first Special Olympic Games in Chicago 50 years ago, Eunice Kennedy Shriver led a bunch of intellectually challenged kids into a swimming pool.
"At that time there were all sorts of theories about special-needs kids and water," says Tim Shriver, Eunice's son and the chairman of Special Olympics. "They didn't have 'buoyancy.' Their body mass index was 'wrong' for swimming. They would sink as soon as they hit the water. I tell you, there were wall-to-wall lifeguards around that pool."
Even the born-to-the-water Eunice had concerns when, years later, after Special Olympics had grown into an organization with global outreach, a competitor named Kester Edwards began lobbying her to include open-water swimming in the program.
"I used to swim with Eunice in the pool at her home," says Edwards, 44, the organization's Washington, D.C.--based manager of sports and development. "But she had some of the same fears other people did about intellectually challenged people in the water. Everyone was afraid we were going to drown."
Edwards smiled widely.
"It was a hard fight, but I led the charge," he says. "And now we have been swimming in open water in competitions since the World Games in Greece in 2011."
Edwards was among the 50,000 athletes, parents, supporters and executives who attended a five-day celebration last week commemorating the first Special Olympics, which centered around a track meet for intellectually challenged kids at Soldier Field on July 20, 1968. Speaking just six weeks after her brother Bobby was assassinated in Los Angeles, Shriver, then 47, gave a name to the organization and predicted that one million of the world's intellectually challenged population would someday engage in competitive sports. She was wrong—today it is five million and growing. (Shriver died in 2009, a year after SPORTS ILLUSTRATED presented her with its first Legacy Award.)
What makes Edwards a little different was that he was in Chicago as both executive and former competitor. Right now he is working with long-jump legend Bob Beamon on a program to design athletic shoes for Special Olympians. He has significant responsibility within the organization, even though reading and writing are extremely difficult for him. He has been considered intellectually disabled since he suffered head trauma after falling from a bicycle in his native Trinidad and Tobago when he was seven.
"I am very high-functioning in conversation," says Edwards, "so people are always asking me, 'Are you sure something is wrong with you?' But there is. I battle every day with it."
Edwards competes only in "unified" events, which bring together athletes with intellectual disabilities and those without. Along with a remarkable woman named Loretta Claiborne, an intellectually challenged athlete who lobbied to get marathon running into the Special Olympics, Edwards will be remembered for convincing skeptics that out-of-the-mainstream kids could participate in out-of-the-mainstream sports.
"Like Loretta, he pioneered the idea that the Special Olympic athlete could be the architect of his or her own path," says Tim Shriver. "What Kester most clearly demonstrates—and the message we're trying to send globally—is that 'intellectual disability' doesn't mean 'no ability.'"