It was another perfect Santa Monica sunny Sunday and hundreds of people, including 400 special athletes, gathered on the pier to not only support this annual fundraiser for Special Olympics Southern California, the world’s largest sports organization offering year-round sports training programs and competitions for individuals with intellectual disabilities, but to meet Los Angeles Lakers legends Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who recently passed away, was the guiding light behind the formation of the special Olympics, and the celebration commemorated the 40th birthday of SOSC, which was founded by Olympic Decathlon Gold Medalist, Rafer Johnson. He reminisced about visiting an institution in Connecticut in which Mrs. Shiver was instrumental in having an athletic program introduced. “I was very impressed by what I saw and learned from that particular visit, that sports could play a great part in how people feel about themselves and about life in general. Johnson continued, “That small introduction showed me a how important sports can be and when Special Olympics came to full life, I was committed to being with Mrs. Shriver and all these years later, I’m still here.”
Introduced by MC CBS sportscaster Jim Hill, Governor Schwarzenegger, casually dressed in shorts and a tee shirt, paid tribute to Shriver. “It’s such a wonderful thing when you walk around and see all these special Olympians wearing their medals.” He continued, “They have this pride and happiness that they can participate and compete in sports like everyone else.” The Governor talked about Shriver’s vision of taking the intellectually challenged people out of institutions and giving them equal opportunities for education, jobs, and sports programs. Shriver faced a lot of resistance to her idea, but she persisted and according to the Governor, “Today we have 13,000 athletes in America and almost three million athletes in 180 countries around the world.” He concluded by thanking all the supporters and everyone involved in putting together this massive event.
Today, the athletes are supported by volunteers and 15,000 coaches who offer training and competition according to the athlete’s gender, age, and ability. Instruction is given in 12 sports including aquatics, athletics, basketball, bowling, floor hockey, golf, gymnastics, soccer, softball, tennis, and volleyball. According to statistics released by SOCA, more than $4.5 million has been raised since 1997.
Along with board member Anita Green, California First Lady and Honorary Chair, Maria Shriver kicked off the first Pier del Sol event in 1997. She thanked Jim Hill for hosting the event and gave special thanks to the Lakers. “I think we have a lot of extra people here this year because we are honoring such a great part of our community – not only great athletes, but a great institution which gives so much back to the community.”
Referring to her mother, Shriver said, “My mother always believed in professional athletes and professional athletic organizations and the power to give back and inspire.” Shriver joked, “You also make us look good to our kids that we know you because sometimes they think we don’t anybody and when we know the Lakers, they are very impressed.”
Shriver announced that Rafer Johnson was being inducted into the California Hall of Fame which honors extraordinary men and women who have inspired not only California, but the rest of the world.” She mentioned that her mother made Arnold a coach when she started dating him and that “He has been an ambassador throughout the world on behalf of Special Olympics Athletes bringing the message of inclusion and social justice to many countries I’m sure we would have not gotten in had it not been for Arnold. So, I want to thank him. He got right off his bike to come here.”
Shriver reminisced about her mother’s funeral, prefacing it by saying that she couldn’t talk about it too much or she’d start crying. “One of the great moments for me when we buried mommy was that so many special Olympic athletes and volunteers came to her funeral in Hyanisport. It was truly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. At the burial, one by one the athletes came up to me and asked if they could give mommy their medal – these medals that people had worked so hard for and had changed their lives. When we were putting mommy in the ground, they threw their medals on mommy’s coffin so she was buried with love from her entire family, along with several hundred gold, silver and bronze medals.”
Jerry West talked about the Lakers. “The Lakers have been such a huge part of my life. It’s been a gigantic love and I still live and die with them like you do, even though I don’t work there anymore.” Referring to the crowd West said, “It’s great looking out there and seeing everyone wearing a Lakers jersey. A couple of people came up to me wearing a Jerry West uniform. They should have holes in them because they’re so darn old.” On a more serious note, West said that he has watched this event grow over the years. “I’m amazed and I want everyone here to know one thing. Regardless of who you are or what your circumstances are, you have a right to compete and excel. I see the enormous pride these athletes have who wouldn’t have been given a chance if it hadn’t been for the unrelenting work of Mrs. Shriver and Rafer.”
The day was full of festivities including an appearance by the Laker Girls, rides, games, entertainment, and fabulous food prepared by chefs from over 35 restaurants. But most of all, was the realization of what SOCA has accomplished by giving these wonderful athletes the opportunity to develop physical fitness, motor skills, greater self-confidence, and a competitive spirit as reflected in their motto: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”