By Ann Grunert
Michael Cusack’s 25-yard swim in a pool at Soldier Field in 1968 ended up turning into a life-changing moment, and not just for the Chicago-area resident but for millions of people with intellectual disabilities around the world.
Mr. Cusack, who had Down syndrome, passed away Dec. 17 at age 64, more than half a century after winning the first of what would become many gold medals as a participant in the Special Olympics program.
It all started when the then-10-year-old Cusack joined a Chicago Park District program for children with disabilities. There, he met a young physical education teacher, Anne Burke. Mrs. Burke, who is now the chief justice on the Illinois Supreme Court, credits Mr. Cusack as being her inspiration and the reason why she and the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver organized that first Special Olympics competition at Soldier Field.
Today, the organization is fixated in more than 170 countries, where Olympic-style sports serve as a platform to reach millions of people with intellectual disabilities, who otherwise may never get the chance to train and compete. In Delaware, more than 4,200 children and adults compete in 19 sports, ranging from basketball to bowling to swimming to bocce, just to name a few.
Mr. Cusack also lived long enough to see the movement branch out and place an emphasis on health care. Millions of athletes have received free medical services — vision, dental, hearing and podiatry among them — at local, national and worldwide events, as part of the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program, including here in Delaware at the annual Summer Games.
And even though Mr. Cusack had long since aged out of the education system, he had to be proud of the Unified Champion Schools program, infusing the movement of “inclusion of all” into public and private schools at all levels. In Delaware, more than 170 schools participate in some type of inclusion activity fueled by Special Olympics.
The impact of Special Olympics goes beyond just the rewards reaped by the athletes themselves. An immeasurable number of people are inspired through their experiences volunteering as coaches, committee members, event officials or day-of volunteers. Ask any volunteer what they get out of Special Olympics, and they’ll tell you: “much more than I could ever give.”
What Mr. Cusack gave through his inspiring performance in the pool on that unforgettable day at Soldier Field was “hope and opportunity.” It was his courage to put himself “out there” and risk failing during a time when people with disabilities already were often shunned and constantly told, “You can’t,” that gave his peers around the world hope and belief that they, too, could succeed in sports if just given the opportunity.
We will never know if Special Olympics would have come about without Michael Cusack. But as he is laid to rest and moves on to his next calling, anyone who knew him and millions who never did owe him a debt of gratitude.
He took a chance, won a race and never looked back. And he inspired millions of his peers to do the same.
Ann Grunert is the executive director of Special Olympics Delaware. For more information, visit sode.org.