Clad in baggy sweat pants, a T-shirt and well-worn running shoes, Special Olympics athlete extraordinaire Loretta Claiborne is relaxing in a comfy armchair in her little brick house here when she says, like it's no big deal: "I've been running since '66. I have more miles on my feet than some people have on their cars."
She's being a tad modest, this woman who has run 26 marathons and won more medals and ribbons than she has places to put them. In her 34 years of running, Claiborne has achieved victories that she never imagined when she was a child, partially blind, mentally retarded and unable to walk or talk until age 4.
"Growing up, my mom was always real strict," Claiborne recalled, "especially about table manners. We could never talk till the meal was done. She used to say maybe someday you'll get to eat with the president. I'd think, 'No retard is ever going to do that.' "
Claiborne did meet the president, actually three of them, Reagan, Bush and Clinton. Denzel Washington has presented her with an award for courage, and Oprah Winfrey has interviewed her on her show. Tomorrow at 7 p.m., Disney will debut "The Loretta Claiborne Story," a made-for-TV movie on ABC starring "Beloved's" Kimberly Elise as Claiborne and "The Practice's" Camryn Manheim as the social worker who befriends her.
Claiborne was born 46 years ago in the rough housing projects of this small Pennsylvania town, the fourth of seven children to single mom Rita Claiborne, who worked various part-time jobs including one as a barmaid. The neighborhood children laughed at her slow talk, her turned-in left foot and her eyes, which pointed in different directions, grossly distorting her vision. "Bozo" and "retard," they taunted her. Never shy, Claiborne fought back with her fists, which led to all sorts of trouble.
The authorities wanted Rita Claiborne (played by Tina Lifford in the movie) to put her daughter in an institution, but she refused. An operation fixed Claiborne's eyesight, and at age 5, she started special education classes and spent the next six years making her way from kindergarten to second grade.
She took up running when her elementary school teacher urged her to leave class early and run home as a way of escaping her classmates' teasing. Claiborne had other ideas, though; she ran toward her tormentors and beat them up.
By age 14, Claiborne was running all the time, doing her darnedest to keep pace with her favorite older brother, track superstar Hank. In high school, running provided a sense of identity. "I couldn't be on the cheerleading team, but I could run," Claiborne said.
When she was 18, she joined Special Olympics on the orders of social worker Janet McFarland, who figured her charge needed an outlet for her aggression after too many fights left her suspended from school and her job.
After a surgery that fixed her turned-in foot, Claiborne went on to win so many races that Special Olympics leaders started referring to her as their Michael Jordan. She proved her mettle in non-Special Olympic events, too: She finished among the fastest 25 women in the Pittsburgh Marathon and twice among the top 100 women in the Boston Marathon, zooming through the 26.2-mile course in just 3 hours, 3 minutes in 1982.
Ironically, not long after these successes, Claiborne suffered a setback: She got kicked out of Special Olympics for essentially being too good. It turned out to be nothing more than a bureaucratic blunder, and Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver ended up personally apologizing to her and asking her to rejoin, which she did.
Claiborne says the 32-year-old organization, with its 1.2 million athletes and 1 million volunteers in 150 countries, has changed her life. "It puts me around people I know are treating me right," Claiborne says.
Claiborne ran her final marathon in the early 1990s. "It just got too costly," she explained, "having to travel to all the races." But she still competes in--and wins--shorter races, including a gold medal in last summer's Special Olympics World Games' half-marathon. And she has taken up other sports, including martial arts (she has a fourth-degree black belt), bowling (her average is 160), swimming and weight-lifting.
On a nonathletic front, Claiborne has been a Special Olympics spokeswoman for a decade or so, traveling around the globe. She gives most of her speeches for free, although she charges some groups, which is how she says she supports herself. (Previously, Claiborne did jobs like cleaning houses, baby-sitting and inserting circulars in the local newspaper.)
She's also trying to settle into her new home, which she bought last fall after years of apartment living. The unpacking isn't going so well. "People keep giving me stuff that I don't need," she laughingly complains. "I need another towel like I need a hole in my head."
Claiborne has been asked repeatedly over the years to sell her life story, but she refused until 1995 when her friend, Special Olympics President and CEO Timothy P. Shriver, approached her.
"I told her it'd be a story of inspiration for people with mental disabilities all over the world," Shriver said. "She said, 'I'm just a runner.' I think she said yes because she realized it's not about her, but about helping others."
Claiborne says that's her hope for the movie: "If it can help some other kid feel a little bit better about him or herself, then I had to do it."
"The Loretta Claiborne Story" opens to thunderous applause at ESPN'S 1996 ESPY Awards ceremony, where Denzel Washington presents Claiborne with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. At the podium, Claiborne reflects back on her life. The impoverished childhood. The constant teasing. The gift of Special Olympics. And in 1994, the death of her mother from a stroke. The movie closes back at the ESPY Awards, with Claiborne's moving acceptance speech. All in all, it's a tear-jerker, an inspiring tale that makes you want to rush out and volunteer for Special Olympics.
The differences between Claiborne's real life and her televised one are minor, she says. She didn't have a dog named Buster. Her siblings' names are different--Hank becomes Sam. And, Claiborne adds, "I didn't live in that fancy-dancy house. That didn't look like the projects to me."
Claiborne--who won't say how much she was paid for her story--is decidedly low-key about all the attention the movie is bringing her. Back at her home, amid the clutter of her living room, Claiborne is talking about a funny incident that happened the other day. She was taking a coffee break at McDonald's when an acquaintance addressed her as "Ms. Movie Star." Her response: "You're the one making it an issue, not me. I'm just drinking my coffee."
"I'm still the same old Loretta," she concludes. "I still got a hole in my sock, and that's why I won't take my shoes off."
CAPTION: Loretta Claiborne struts her stuff at 1999's World Games in Raleigh, N.C.
CAPTION: Kimberly Elise and Camryn Manheim star in "The Loretta Claiborne Story."