By Sheryl Estrada
Inclusion, courage and valuing people with disabilities were reoccurring themes Wednesday night at the 25th annual ESPY Awards in Los Angeles.
The ESPYs, hosted by retired NFL star Peyton Manning, recognized the past year’s best athletes and moments in sports as well as individuals who contribute to the spirit of sportsmanship, including Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Air Force Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama walked on stage to a booming standing ovation by the athletes to present the Arthur Ashe Courage Award posthumously to Shriver. The award is sponsored by Cadillac, a brand of General Motors (No. 42 on the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies list).
Shriver, who died in 2009 at the age of 88, was the founder of the Special Olympics, which is the world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. She was the sister of former President John F. Kennedy and Sens. Robert F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, wife of the late Sargent Shriver and mother of five children, including Maria Shriver, journalist, activist and author.
Obama likened Shriver to sports heroes Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King, Muhammad Ali and Ashe, who used “sports to break barriers and change hearts and minds.”
“I am here tonight to honor a remarkable woman,” she said. “A woman who believed that everyone has something to contribute and everyone deserves a chance to push themselves, to find out what they’re made up of, and to compete and win.
“She knew that when we give others a chance to fulfill their greatest potential, we all win. So nearly 50 years ago, she created the Special Olympics.
“And over the course of her life, she turned that visionary idea into a worldwide movement of competitions across the globe through her passionate service she made our world more welcoming, inclusive and fair. Not just for the athletes she empowered, but for us all.”
Following a video segment on Shriver’s work, her son, Tim, accepted the award on behalf of his mother.
“Once a great first lady, still a great first lady,” he told Obama after she handed him the award, and the crowd let out a cheer.
“Our mother would have loved you. She would have loved your forthrightness, your honesty, your toughness, your commitment also to get everybody on the playing field. She would have been so honored that you are here for her tonight as we all are.”
Shriver said his mother “wanted to be known as a great hero of sports,” and that she and Ashe were both “tough as nails” with “big hearts” and “committed to inclusion.”
Ashe was the first African American to win the men’s singles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and the first African American man to be ranked No. 1 in the world. He contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion and turned his efforts to raising awareness about the disease before succumbing to it 1993.
Shriver also said that more work needs to be done to achieve equality toward people with intellectual disabilities.
“My mother knew one thing,” he said. “She knew that the athletes of the Special Olympics have the same dedication, the same commitment, the same guts and they deserve the same glory as any other athlete competing in this country or anywhere around the world.”
Following the ceremony, Obama tweeted:
— Michelle Obama (@MichelleObama) July 13, 2017
Pat Tillman Award for Service
Air Force Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro received the Pat Tillman Award for Service at the ESPYs. Del Toro was injured in Afghanistan in 2005 when his Humvee rolled over a bomb.
He lost most of his fingers, and more than 80 percent of his body was burned. Del Toro was in a coma for three months. When awakening from the coma, he was told he’d likely never walk or breathe on his own again.
“Del Toro used sports as part of his rehabilitation and was not only able to walk and breathe on his own, but he also became the first 100 percent combat disabled Air Force technician to re-enlist in the service,” according to ESPN.
In 2016, he won a gold medal at the Invictus Games, a sports competition for wounded servicemen and women.
Jon Stewart presented Del Toro the award Wednesday night. He vowed to stay strong for all injured service members and disabled civilians.
View Del Toro’s speech:
Click here to see the complete list of ESPY Award winners and honorees.