June 01, 2012 | Updated: January 29, 2019

By Ryan O'Keefe

The moment I realized Summer Games was in full swing I was standing at DFW Airport holding a sign that said “Loretta Claiborne”.  A few minutes later, Loretta came walking through the concourse toting her luggage and her running shoes over her shoulder.  I smiled, as a fellow runner I also carry my running shoes onto the plane for fear of them getting lost in transit. 

My task for the next four days would be to escort Loretta around Summer Games from Board Meetings to Opening Ceremonies to all the sporting venues.  It would be a tough task as her scheduled was packed every minute of every day. 

For those who don’t know who Loretta Claiborne is, she’s a world-class Special Olympics athlete who serves on the Special Olympics International Executive Board.  She’s won the Arthur Ashe Courage Award from ESPN and had a Disney movie made about her life. (Read more about Loretta)

Since Loretta’s time was stretched thin, whenever there was a break we tried to get a run in.  On the first day we broke away to go for a jog at the MAC center.  Loretta loves to run, but not in the morning.

“Ryan, my body doesn’t respond to morning runs,” Loretta told me more than once.

She and I jogged around the MAC for about 30 minutes. We talked about life in Special Olympics, how she has grown to love tennis and how important family is to both of us.  The whole time we were running, it felt like any jog I would have with one of my friends. She was so easy to talk to, plus we had so much in common. It was from that moment on we had a connection beyond just Special Olympics – we were friends. 

The rest of the Games would be easy from that point on.  When she ran with the Torch Runners on the final leg into the stadium, she told me that was one of the highlights of her trip. You could see it on her face as she carried the torch. I know she enjoyed every moment she shared with our athletes. She was a master of finding moments to have fun, whether it was singing karaoke at Athlete Village or a little one-on-one soccer shoot out with a staff member.  She even mentioned making a side trip to see one of those famous Texas armadillos.

Every day was filled with something new and fun.  I could say it was hard, but she made it so easy.  One of the things I loved about Loretta was that when she spoke, she spoke with passion.  It’s hard to turn your head or tune her out. I will never forget seeing the smiles and faces of athletes and coaches that would stop us to take a picture with her or just thank her for all she’s done.  Loretta never said “no” to any of the athletes’ requests. 

Special Olympics Texas President Margaret Larsen always says, “They (SOTX athletes) will always surprise you.” It’s so true. I witnessed so many instances of good sportsmanship and the joy of competition that it’s hard not to walk away from Summer Games and not be happy about everything you just witnessed. 

As Loretta headed off for her plane trip back home, she motioned to me as if to tell me something that I already knew. She looked me in the eye and said, “You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania, so don’t be afraid to stop by and say hi.”  I told her the same goes for Texas.  She smiled and said next time we’ve got to see one of those armadillos.