This Saturday more than 700 athletes, with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities, will gather on the National Mall to run, walk or bike in support of the 1st Annual Eunice Kennedy Shriver Challenge, which will raise money to support the Special Olympics and Best Buddies International.
Among those 700 athletes will be the event’s co-chairs, Washington Capitals, Wizards and Mystics owner Ted Leonsis and his Best Buddy, Special Olympics medalist Ken Holden. Leonsis and Holden were matched as buddies through Best Buddies’ e-Buddies program 12 years ago and have emailed each other literally every day since. During that time, they have grown to be close friends.
“We email usually twice a day and sometimes more if lots of excitement is happening in sports,” Holden says. “We make fake billion dollar bets and I win lots of those bets. If [Leonsis] is in town, we go out to eat and sometimes go to see Caps hockey games together. We are really best friends, you know.”
For his part, Leonsis writes about Holden and Best Buddies in his book, The Business of Happiness. “I’ve never had a relationship with someone with an intellectual disability,” he writes. “I learned that I had underestimated how capable they really are.” Through his connection with Best Buddies, he says he “became connected to the higher calling of reducing the isolation of those with intellectual disabilities.”
Organizations such as Best Buddies don’t just benefit those with disabilities. The friendships born from these pairings are important to everyone involved. Leonsis writes that getting to know Holden “has enriched my life immeasurably. It has made me happy.”
As someone who has participated in both the Best Buddies program, founded by Anthony Shriver, and Special Olympics, founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Holden has words of praise for the late Mrs. Shriver. “She opened people’s eyes to the need for us to able to compete just like other athletes were doing,” he says.
After his special needs elementary school got involved with the Special Olympics when he was 10 years old, Holden says he was thrilled to finally get to be a kid who was in a sport like his brothers. His favorite Special Olympics event is biking, but “I love all of my gold medals and am really proud of the ones won with a team sport,” he says. “Standing on the riser and having a gold medal placed around my neck made me feel very important and happy.”
As for Best Buddies, Holden reports that even though he had always gone out to do things with his family, having a Best Buddy, starting when he was in college, was different because it gave him an opportunity to go out with a friend. “That was the first time I had a regular friend that I could leave in a car with for a football game, movie or out to eat. I had done those things, but always with a family member,” he says.
This experience has continued with his relationship with Leonsis. When asked what he is most looking forward to at Saturday’s event, he replies, “I am looking forward to having fun with my buddy Ted. I can’t wait to see him and share all of the fun events at the challenge.”
“I am really happy I get to help with the challenge because Mrs. Shriver made a huge difference in my life and all of the people with intellectual disabilities,” he continues. “She knew that people with disabilities had lots of abilities and she gave us all a chance to achieve. She is the reason I am the happy guy that is lucky to have Ted as my best friend too.”
The Eunice Kennedy Shriver Challenge kicks off on October 23 at 7:30 a.m. at the Washington Monument. It will feature a 20-mile cycling event led by D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and Tour de France cyclists Bobby Julich and Christian Vande Velde. Olympic gold-medalist Carl Lewis will lead a 5K run/3K walk. The day’s additional events will culminate in a live performance by David Archuleta.
[Image: Ken Holden, Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Ted Leonsis at the 2008 Buddy Ball.]