An Interview with Special Olympics Chairman, Tim Shriver

On July 12, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics, received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2017 ESPY Awards (Excellence in Sport Performance Yearly). Although given at a sports award show, the Arthur Ashe Courage Award honors people who reflect the spirit of Arthur Ashe, a professional American tennis player, by possessing “strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril, and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost.” (Read more about the award here). Tim Shriver, the Chairman of Special Olympics and her son, accepted it on her behalf.

My family and I watched the ESPYs when they aired, and because I had previously met Tim at the 2017 World Games, I was recently able to interview Tim about his experience, and I’m really grateful for the opportunity.

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The Olympics of Blogs: Was it hard to accept the award on behalf of your mother?

Tim Shriver: I wouldn’t say it was hard. I would say it was meaningful. I wanted to do her justice, and I wanted to try with everything I had to carry her message, which gave me a real sense of the weightiness of the moment. Even though it’s an ESPY, and even though it’s about sports, and it’s fun and exciting and all that, I felt it was a serious moment also, a moment for her voice to be heard and seen by people all over the world in sports. So I wanted to do my best and even then, a little better. That was challenging, but I was happy to have the opportunity to give my best shot.

The Olympics of Blogs: I had fun watching it! My family and I watched it all decked out in Special Olympics gear.

Tim Shriver: Great! That’s so fantastic.

The Olympics of Blogs: What do you think your mom would have thought about winning the Arthur Ashe Award?

Tim Shriver: I think two things. She would have thought [of] how much she loved Arthur and how proud she was. She would have been so proud to win it and probably a little shocked. And then I think she would have probably also had a little sneer because she always was a little bit impatient. And she would have said, “It’s about time.” Not because she deserved it, but because the Movement deserved it. So she would have received it with a lot of joy and a little bit of urgency to keep the ball moving forward. She didn’t really like awards because they took away from the work of moving things forward from her point of view. Now that she’s not here, we can take awards and relax a little bit because she deserves it.

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Michelle Obama presented the award to Tim Shriver while he was on stage with Special Olympic athletes.

The Olympics of Blogs: According to Daina Shilts on her ESPY diary for Special Olympics Wisconsin, she said you didn’t read the teleprompter when you got the award. Why didn’t you?

Tim Shriver: I didn’t know Daina wrote that. <Laughed> I just got going. I wanted to speak from my heart. I was prepared. I knew what was on the teleprompter, but I didn’t want to be trapped by it. I wanted to feel the moment. I wanted to be there in the moment, not just be reading what I prepared before the moment.

And I thought going up, one of the things that wasn’t on the script was to recognize the athletes by name, and I just felt like I couldn’t stand… I wanted them to be seen as individuals, as Daina, as Loretta, as all those people who were there. So I just went off the script. I didn’t want to stick to it.

The Olympics of Blogs: It was really powerful. I could tell you were speaking from the heart too.

Tim Shriver: Thank you.

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Outside the ESPYs

The Olympics of Blogs: How were athletes chosen to receive local ESPY awards?

Tim Shriver: Mostly by our local leaders. We didn’t have a big elaborate process, but we invited our local CEOS and board chairs to pick folks who they felt were in the spirit of both my mother and the ESPY award. We let them choose the people they thought best embodied the ideals.

The Olympics of Blogs: What is your favorite Special Olympics moment of all time?

Tim Shriver: That’s tough… I mean Donal Page in Ireland [Page is an athlete who competed in the Motor Activity Training Program (MATP) at the 2003 World Games in Ireland]. Doing the motor activities was certainly in the top 3. You know, Ramadan… running the 10K in Tanzania was in the top 3. Gosh, it’s tough, that’s a very tough one for me. Loretta Claiborne addressing President Clinton in 1995 even though it wasn’t an athletic moment. I mean, my own kids playing Unified. The first time we had a Unified game with my children all participating, I think that was probably number one in some ways because I could see all five of my kids at different ages growing. Their hearts just bursting with growth and opportunity and joy and insight and wisdom [while they’re] just shooting baskets. I don’t know… that’s a tough one.

The Olympics of Blogs: Those are all really good ones! Wow.

Tim Shriver: <Laughed> Yeah.

The Olympics of Blogs: How have you been inspired by the athletes of Special Olympics?

Tim Shriver: Well, I think I’ve been inspired to take chances, to be less afraid of the judgment of others, to trust in my own goodness and in the goodness of the human spirit more. If you see the world as I try to see the world through the eyes of the athletes of Special Olympics, you see a much more welcoming and joyful and ultimately beautiful world, and I try to see through those eyes more and more, and I think many of the athletes have given me the chance to… Just got an email this morning from my Smile Coach Martha Hill, and you know, I smiled for about a half an hour just looking at it.

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Martha Hill

The Olympics of Blogs: What’s a Smile Coach?

Tim Shriver: Smile. She and I just came up with that because she was a Global Messenger, and she was in Shanghai giving speeches. Every time she’d give a speech, she would just have this huge smile on her face, and I was like, “I need someone to help me learn how to smile like you.” And she said, “Well, I’ll be your smile coach.”

The Olympics of Blogs: That’s so sweet.

Tim Shriver: So, I guess maybe that’s the simplest answer. The athletes of Special Olympics have helped me learn to smile more.

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Tim Shriver in his office with the award

The Olympics of Blogs: That’s so nice. If your mother could see Special Olympics now, what do you think she would say?

Tim Shriver: Keep moving. There’s still a lot of injustice in the world. Keep moving.

The Olympics of Blogs: How has your mother inspired you?

Tim Shriver: My mother, she was so smart, and she inspired me to try to be smarter. She was so fearless that she’s inspired me to want to be fearless. And she so trusted her gut. She trusted what she thought was true about the world regardless of what anybody said. And that capacity to trust what you believe deep, deep, deep in your heart is true. I mean, you have to find it, but once you find it, trust it. That’s a huge gift, and she’s made me try to do all those things. Be more fearless, be smarter, and trust my gut more. I’m not where she was, but um…

The Olympics of Blogs: You’re doing pretty well.

Tim Shriver: I’m growing. <Laughed> Thank you.

The Olympics of Blogs: What are your future goals for Special Olympics?

Tim Shriver: I’d like to have Special Olympics Unified Sports in every school in the world. I’d like to have every child grow up in the world with a chance to either play, volunteer, or coach a Unified team. Every child. Because then we’d all have the foundation. We’d all have the basic understanding of the fact that everybody has gifts. And that’s the biggest insight I think in life. Everybody has gifts, and you forget it. We all forget it from time to time.

As the interview ended, I presented Tim with the resolution I had passed (click here to read about it) recognizing July 20, 2017, as Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day in Pennsylvania.

After I gave it to him, he said, “Oh my god, you’re kidding. Wow. <Laughed> Wow! I didn’t know this… State Proclamation. Wow. Isn’t that great? Look at that. You got this done. See what I mean? Amazing. Beautiful.”

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Me with the award!

Getting to interview Tim Shriver, the Chairman of Special Olympics, was really exciting for me. I was so happy to be able to learn more about his experience at the ESPYs. Together, he and his mother have created such an amazing organization, and I have no doubt that in another 50 years, Special Olympics Unified Sports will be in every school in the world just like he said. Check back on my blog soon because Tim Shriver was nice enough to allow me to see Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s office!

You can watch Tim Shriver accept the ESPY Award below!

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