On July 20, 1968, a bright light began shining on ability, not disability, as 1,000 athletes from across the United States and Canada proudly marched into Soldier Field in Chicago for the first Special Olympics competition. Among the participants eagerly awaiting the North American competition was 12-year-old Chris Byrne, fresh off his qualifying gold medal win in freestyle swimming at the Special Olympics of New Jersey Bordentown competition.
Before the games concluded, Chris had added two more gold medals in freestyle swimming to his collection. He even had the opportunity to stand on the podium in front of dignitaries such as Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Maria Shriver and John Kennedy, Jr.
Fifty years later, Chris is still competing … and winning! Today, he holds more than 1,000 Special Olympics medals for swimming, bowling, figure skating, softball, long-distance running (half-marathon and 5K) and track and field.
“I have medals in almost every sport in the Special Olympics except riding horses,” said Chris. “The medals I won in 1968 were the first ever given for freestyle swimming. That’s pretty neat.”
When not competing or training, Chris can be found smiling and greeting CSE students, faculty and staff in Rose Dining Room where he has worked for the past seven years.
“Working at CSE makes me happy. It’s a comfortable place with nice people and a place to reflect in prayer,” said Chris. “I really like the students, especially the freshmen. Since they are away from home, I try to boost them up and make them feel better by telling them to have a good day or (if they’re athletes) a good game.”
When asked what advice he likes to give students, he quickly replies: “Leave a good legacy. Do the best you can in everything that you do.”
In 1989, Chris completed the New York Marathon and now, nearly 30 years later, he is still avidly competing in long-distance running events. Most recently, with his focus on track and field, he won a gold medal in the 5,000 meters at the New Jersey Special Olympics in 2018.
Chris is so passionate about sports that his mom frequently says, “as long as Chris can walk and breathe, I know he will compete in this Special Olympics.”