Eunice Kennedy Shriver

"Many men have great dreams.
Only great men have dreams that are fulfilled by
their own actions."

-Eunice Kennedy Shriver


Eunice Kennedy Shriver, one of nine children, was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on July 10, 1921. She was the daughter of Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. Eunice was the sister of President John F. Kennedy. One of her siblings, Rosemary, had an intellectual disability, which inspired Eunice’s path towards justice. Her relationship with Rosemary prompted Eunice to end the widespread discrimination and the lack of respect people of the 1950s showed towards individuals with special needs. Eunice learned that her sister was just like everyone else and that society needed to understand that individuals with intellectual disabilities are as equally valuable to society as those individuals without disability. Eunice attended the Convent of Sacred Hearts in both England and the United States. She received her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Stanford University in 1943. During her time in college, Eunice actively participated in athletics. Through her participation in various sports, Eunice began to understand the power of a sport to inspire and encourage athletes to fulfill their potential.[1]

In 1957, Eunice Shriver became the Executive Vice President of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation. The foundation was originally started in order to commemorate the life of her older brother, who had been killed during World War II. The foundation began in 1946. Under the control of Eunice, the foundation developed into an organization that focused on changing society’s views of individuals with mental retardation and other intellectual disabilities as well as providing methods of research to better understand intellectual disabilities. The direction of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation sparked the founding of President Kennedy’s Panel on Mental Retardation as well as the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Other research facilities were established to better understand intellectual disabilities as well as provide support for such individuals.[2]

In 1962, Shriver opened “Camp Shriver”. She held the camp in her back yard for individuals with intellectual disabilities. This one day camp allowed these individuals to express their talents and skills through different sport activities. Then in July, 1968, Shriver held the first ever international Special Olympics Games in Chicago, Illinois. The first Special Olympics tournament consisted of 1000 athletes, representing 26 states and Canada. Today, Special Olympics consists of nearly 3 million athletes, representing more than 180 countries.[3]

During her career, Shriver has received the Legion of Honor, the prix de la Couronne Française, the Albert Lasker Public Service Award and many other awards. In 1984, she was awarded the most prestigious award amongst civilian honors, the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom. [4]
Shriver died on August 11, 2009.

Personal Challenges

Eunice Shriver engaged in the practice of swimming which allowed her to develop moral principles in order to combat certain personal and institutional challenges. The practice of swimming taught Eunice valuable lessons that inspired her to found the Special Olympics. Eunice learned that sports allow all individuals to “realize their potential for growth". At an early age, Eunice began her involvement with the athletic world. Eunice and Rosemary had a relationship like that of any other siblings. Coming from a large family, Eunice always played sports with her eight other siblings. Shriver always had a deep connection with athletics, due to her family upbringing. Whether it be a family football game or swimming (a family tradition), Shriver felt a rush and joy from challenging oneself physically. [5] Shriver's family included everyone in sports, even her sister Rosemary. Rosemary had an intellectual disability, but that did not change the way Eunice interacted with her sister. Eunice played with Rosemary in the same manner she would any other child. A NY Times article reports, “Rosemary and Eunice developed a close bond, participating in sports including swimming and sailing and traveling together in Europe.” [6] Eunice never considered her sister to be anything other than her sister. Eunice continued her love of sports in college where she participated in swimming.

The three internal goods expressed in swimming are the development of an athletic body made for the sport, strength and teamwork. Swimming is the one sport that involves every type of exercise and therefore allows swimmers to sculpt the perfect athletic body for this sport. Swimmers not only learn the importance of cardio exercise but also the importance of muscle toning. Swimmers focus on breathing techniques and sculpting their bodies. A swimmer is concerned with the health of every aspect of their body. The coordination of the breathing techniques and the different strokes is critical for a swimmer. By learning the different strokes, a swimmer is toning the different parts of their body so they can accel in the sport. The second internal good that results from swimming is strength. Swimmers learn to build their bodies to be powerhouses of energy. The amount of effort to push off the blocks in order to achieve that maximum speed is incredible. Swimmers use every muscle in their body and every ounce of strength to achieve that first place finish. Strength in swimming can be defined by the amount of force used to push off the starting blocks. Without putting strength and effort into the start, the athlete will never come in first place. The third internal good is teamwork. While swimming can be an individual sport, swimming also produces the good of teamwork. In a swim meet, every single swimmer is responsible for contributing to the team’s success. A swimmer gets points for every first place finish which adds to the team’s total score. In addition, those swimmers that participate in relay events also need to use teamwork in order to finish on top. There is a certain rhythm involved with teamwork that makes every athlete work together as one swimmer. Teamwork in swimming requires everyone to respect and support the other athletes during their individual races. There is a necessary solidarity that exists in swimming that inspires the team to work together.

The standard of excellence in swimming is sportsmanship. At the end of every race, the most prestigious swimmers shake the hands of their opponents on either side of their lane. Swimmers show their opponents equal respect, regardless of what place an athlete finishes. The best swimmers show respect to each of their competitors. If a swimmer does not congratulate their opponents, the swimmer is perceived as selfish, judgmental, disrespectful and rude. Sportsmanship is critical in the practice of swimming, as well as every other sport. The internal good of teamwork produces this standard of excellence. Sportsmanship in swimming is a sign of a high ranked athlete. Sportsmanship is a universal standard of excellence for every type of sport. The Special Olympics is founded on this standard of excellence as seen in the Special Olympics oath: “Let me win, but if I do not win, let me be brave in the attempt”. Athletes are required to repeat this oath prior to major competitions and are required to treat each competing athlete with respect and equality. Those athletes that exhibit sportsmanship are considered the most respected and honored in their respective sports.

The practice of swimming helped Eunice to overcome her personal challenge. The major personal challenge that Eunice experienced was having a sister with special needs and applying her experiences to the disrespectful outlook of society. Eunice’s sister was born in 1918 with mild intellectual disabilities. In 1941, Rosemary was sent to have a prefrontal lobotomy in order to calm her, as she had developed a bad case of irritability and mood swings. The lobotomy, however, only hurt Rosemary more and she was therefore sent to an institution where she remained until her death in 2005. [7]

When Eunice was a child, her sister’s disability never seemed to be a problem. Rosemary lived at home, unlike many individuals with disabilities. The family treated Rosemary equally. However, as Eunice grew up, society’s understandings of what mental retardation and intellectual disabilities conflicted with Eunice’s upbringing. In one of her writings, Shriver makes reference to her brother John F. Kennedy. On October 11, 1961, President Kennedy stated, “At one time, there was practically no effective program in the field of mental retardation. They suffered from lack of public understanding".[8] Even though President Kennedy made this statement after his sister was institutionalized, it demonstrates the world that Eunice was growing up in. Eunice’s personal challenge was the tension between her upbringing and the societal claims of the 1940s and 1950s.

Despite the challenge of growing up with a sibling with special needs in a world that disrespected, mistreated and misunderstood individuals with disability, Eunice used the goods from her practices of swimming to counter society’s mis-perceptions. Eunice was raised with an understanding of sportsmanship, determination and teamwork. Eunice always treated every individual equally no matter if they had a disability or not. Eunice realized that if individuals were given the opportunity to be treated equally and with respect, they would be able to change the world and society’s misperceptions. The Special Olympics embodies these principles. Through sports, athletes are able to develop their potential and learn the value of respect. Sports have the ability to connect all individuals. Sports give individuals a way to be treated as equals. The rules in sports apply to everyone; there are no exceptions for different people. Eunice combated the tension between society and her upbringing through her experiences in swimming.

Justice: Justice is defined as respecting the human dignity of every individual regardless of their heritage, social class, race or intellectual or physical disability. It involves giving every indiviudal an equal opportunity to flourish, to reach their potential and to achieve greatness and suceess. Eunice Shriver exhibited justice through her efforts to end discrimination against those individuals with intellectual disabilities. Shriver spent her life’s career establishing programs, research facilities and the Special Olympics to provide an equal and fair life for those individuals who were once the marginalized in society. Shriver strove to change society’s outlook and demonstrate that all individuals have human dignity and deserve to be treated justly.

Choiceworthy Good
The choice worthy good exhibited by Eunice Shriver is teamwork. From the practice of swimming, Eunice learned the value of teamwork; striving to reach your highest potential in order to benefit the team. Through teamwork, Eunice was able to break the barriers of discrimination and societal mis-perceptions of individuals with intellectual disabilities. By creating Special Olympics, Shriver was able to provide individuals with intellectual disabilities the able to reach their full potential and find their own greatness, even though society said they could not. Eunice pushed the limits of society. Through this concept of working together to reach greatness, Eunice was able to challenge those labels society placed on her sister. She was able to resolve the tensions that she was challenged by. Without this idea of teamwork and the importance of working to better the whole, Eunice may not have been able to create the organization that has touched the lives of over 3 million athletes. The reason why people today are more understanding and respectful of individuals with intellectual disabilities can be accredited to Eunice. Without Eunice Shriver and her determination who knows what the world would look like. The world is tolerant and respectful to all individuals because of Eunice’s determination to bring the world to an acceptance of all people. Eunice taught the world to act as a team and assist every teammate to achieve their greatest potential.

Combating Discrimination
“Clearly we stand at the threshold of a new era of Enlightenment in the field of mental retardation. The forces being brought to bear upon the problem of mental retardation at the national, state and local levels are greater by far than at any time in our history”.[9]
Eunice Shriver utilized those values learned through the practice of swimming to affect change in the world. By coming to an understanding of justice and its necessity in society, Shriver founded the Special Olympics. Through this organization and varying other newly established research institutions, Shriver combated the cultural ill of discrimination. In the above statement, Shriver establishes the pressing need to bring change to the world and end discrimination against those with mental disabilities.

During the 1940’s-1960’s society marginalized those individuals with mental disabilities. The world was not a friendly place for anyone that was different. It was common practice to institutionalize individuals with disabilities, as no one knew how to take care of them. No one knew ways to help them grow and flourish in society. No one even considered taking the time to integrate those individuals into the society. People with mental disabilities were cast out of society, often seen as invaluable and incapable of doing really anything valuable. Shriver writes, “Mental retardation was not on the nation’s agenda when Kennedy became president, and for the majority of Americans it held little interest”.[10] Shriver indicates that the society in the 1940’s-1960’s saw no value in individuals with intellectual disabilities. She states, "I had enormous affection for Rosie. If I never met Rosemary, never knew anything about handicapped children how would I have ever found out? Because nobody accepted them anyplace. So where would you find out? Unless you had one in your own family".[11] Shriver's family was unique in that they showed so much affection for Rosemary. Typically individuals with disabilities were not even given a chance in society; they were simply thrown into institutions at early ages. The society was not concerned with the development and potential of individuals with disabilities. They were not considered valuable assets of society.

Empowered by the relationship with her sister, Shriver realized that change needed to happen. She wanted the rest of society to understand that individuals with intellectual disabilities deserve as much attention and care as typical individuals. People with disabilities can contribute the same amount to society as everyone else. Even though they have a different genetic structure that limits their intellect, they are still entitled to all the same benefits as other people. Growing up with a sister with a disability, Shriver understood the value of equality and justice for all. Shriver’s personal challenge of living with someone with an intellectual disability helped her to shape her own definitions of justice and equality. She saw how society’s misconceptions and misunderstandings conflicted with her own beliefs and experiences. In her daily life, Shriver and her family played sports frequently, specifically swimming. It was through the practice of swimming that Shriver learned the value of justice. This sport requires determination at mastering the various strokes. With hard work and determination, success is possible. From swimming, Eunice also learned the importance of teamwork. Even though we may work individually, ultimately our actions affect those of the team. The success of the team is based on the hard work and strength of the individual. Swimming taught Shriver the importance of teamwork and sportsmanship. These activities and internal goods shaped Eunice’s definition of justice. The desire and need for justice in society inspired Eunice to found the Special Olympics. Through her family and college experiences with swimming, Shriver learned that sports are the best way to help individuals develop their potential. Shriver realized that playing a sport builds confidence and gives everyone an equal chance at success. This concept helped Eunice to define justice, which led her to found the Special Olympics.

President Obama writes on the death of Eunice Shriver, “She will be remembered as the founder of the Special Olympics, as a champion for people with intellectual disabilities, and as an extraordinary woman who, as much as anyone, taught our nation-and our world-that no physical or mental barrier can restrain the power of the human spirit”.[12]
Shriver used sports as a way to show the world that every human being is worthy of the same rights and respect. The practice of sports (swimming in particular) is a method to demonstrate that everyone deserves to be treated justly. Every individual deserves to be treated with respect and appreciation. Shriver created the Special Olympics to provide every individual an equal opportunity at success and human flourishing. The Special Olympics is the definition of justice. Eunice fought her whole life to end discrimination and to establish justice.

Written by: Rebecca Nagel

Works Cited

Baranauckas, Carla. “Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Influential Founder of Special Olympics, Dies at 88”. The New York Times. 11 Aug. 2009. 12 Nov. 2012 <>.

"Eunice Kennedy Shriver: Cornelius Amory Pugsley National Medal Award, 2009". 20 Nov. 2012. <>.

Obama, Barack. “Statement from President Obama on Shriver Passing”. USA Today. 11 Aug. 2009. 12 Nov.2012 <>.

Shriver, Eunice Kennedy. “The Fulfillment of a Vision”. Peabody Journal of Education. 1996. JSTOR. 12 Nov. 2012 <>.

Shriver, Eunice Kennedy. “We Stand at the Threshold”. The American Journal of Nursing. 1963. JSTOR. 12 Nov. 2012 <>.

Special Olympics. 2012. 12 Nov. 2012 <>.
  1. ^ Special Olympics,, 12 Nov. 2012.
  2. ^ Baranauckas, Carla. “Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Influential Founder of Special Olympics, Dies at 88”. The New York Times. 11 Aug.2009.
  3. ^ Special Olympics,,12 Nov. 2012.
  4. ^ Special Olympics,,12 Nov. 2012.
  5. ^ "Eunice Kennedy Shriver". Cornelius Amory Pugsley National Medal Award,2009".
  6. ^ Special Olympics,,12 Nov. 2012.
  7. ^ Baranauckas, Carla. “Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Influential Founder of Special Olympics, Dies at 88”. The New York Times. 11 Aug.2009.
  8. ^ Shriver, Eunice Kennedy. “The Fulfillment of a Vision”. Peabody Journal of Education. 1996.
  9. ^ Shriver, Eunice Kennedy. “We Stand at the Threshold”. The American Journal of Nursing. 1963.
  10. ^ Shriver, Eunice Kennedy. “The Fulfillment of a Vision”. Peabody Journal of Education. 1996.
  11. ^ "Eunice Kennedy Shriver". Cornelius Amory Pugsley National Medal Award,2009".
  12. ^ Obama, Barack. “Statement from President Obama on Shriver Passing”. USA Today. 11 Aug. 2009.