Michael Cusack, 64, Dies; Helped Inspire the Special Olympics

Michael Cusack, known as Moose, had Down syndrome. He also had a load of athletic talent. He played sports with his four sisters and neighbors on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s. He also liked to masquerade as Batman or Superman, with a towel tied around his neck.

In 1965, a new recreation program for children with intellectual disabilities opened in the city’s West Pullman Park, with the help of a $10,000 grant from the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation. For the 9-year-old Michael, who loved to swim and to play many other sports, the program offered focus and began a medal-filled athletic career that was ended by a stroke about 15 years ago.

“He was just a little guy,” Anne Burke, then a 19-year-old physical education teacher and now chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, recalled by phone. Michael was her first student — indeed, the first child she had ever met — with intellectual disabilities.

By 1967, as Michael grew more proficient at swimming in the park’s Olympic-size pool, about 100 children had joined the program. The president of the Chicago Park District asked Ms. Burke, then known as Anne McGlone, what could be done to bring more children to the program, which she was now running. She suggested that they hold a citywide competition.

After some research, she wrote a grant application to Eunice Shriver at the Kennedy Foundation, which provided $25,000 to support what became the first Special Olympics, held at Soldier Field in Chicago in July 1968.

Michael, then 12, won his first gold medal, in a freestyle swimming race. He would go on, his family said, to win hundreds of medals over nearly 40 years at national, local, state and regional Special Olympic competitions.

In 1972, he memorably lost his swimming trunks on a flip turn at the Special Olympics in Los Angeles, emerged from the pool naked to learn his winning time, then dove back in to retrieve his trunks.

Mr. Cusack died on Dec. 17 at Good Shepherd Manor, a residence for men with intellectual and physical disabilities, in Momence, Ill., about an hour south of Chicago. He was 64. His sister Carole Cusack said the cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

Michael John Cusack was born in Chicago on May 6, 1956. His mother, Esther (Gwizdalski) Cusack, was a homemaker, and his father, John, was a police officer. Doctors told them after Michael’s birth that there was little hope for him and recommended that they institutionalize him.

“They found that preposterous,” his sister Connie McIntosh said. “We had no experience with someone with intellectual disabilities, but every day he surprised us with his brightness, happiness, joy and his physical abilities.”

He was, she added, “athletic by anyone’s standards.”

Carole Cusack called her brother “a great team player who always shook the hands of the people he competed with, win or lose.”

Michael’s parents were at first uncertain whether his participation in organized sports would work.

“I remember Michael’s dad didn’t even want him to go bowling that first time,” his mother told The Chicago Tribune in 1979. “He was afraid Michael would throw the ball around and do a lot of damage.”

But, she said, she could no longer “imagine what Michael’s life would be without sports.”

“It’s calmed him down and brought out so many wonderful things in him, like self-assurance,” she said. “He knows he’s a good athlete.”

“When people come over to the house,” she added, “the first thing he does is take them over to his room to show them his medals. He loves them. He knows what they mean.”

Swimming (freestyle and backstroke) was his specialty. But Mr. Cusack, renowned for his strength, also bowled, golfed and played basketball, softball, floor hockey and volleyball; ran the 50-yard dash and 100-yard relays; competed in the long jump; and race-walked, skied and snowshoed.

Justice Burke said the Special Olympics would not have happened without him.

“Michael was the first, and his participation showed the other parents what he could do, and then they brought their children along,” she said. “If the others hadn’t come along, there wouldn’t have been any thought to putting on a citywide track meet.”

In addition to his sisters Carole and Connie, Mr. Cusack is survived by two other sisters, Colette Cusack and Maureen McCormack; eight nieces and nephews; and eight great-nieces and great-nephews.

At his wake and funeral, a tradition that has developed among Special Olympians was followed. Mr. Cusack’s family set up baskets that they filled with his medals, to be taken and worn in his memory by fellow athletes, relatives and friends. About 150 people wore a medal — his family still has plenty of others — at his socially distanced funeral at a church.

“I looked out at everyone wearing his medals,” Ms. McIntosh said, “and I realized that the love he gave was the love he received, and how one person can make such a difference.”

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