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Michael 'Moose' Cusack, inspiration for Special Olympics, dead at 64

Since the first Special Olympics in 1968 in Chicago, it has branched out to more than 170 countries and millions of athletes.

CHICAGO — Michael “Moose” Cusack, a Chicago-area man who helped inspire the Special Olympics movement and who won multiple medals at the athletic event over years, has died. He was 64.

The Chicago Tribune reported Monday that Cusack, who had Down syndrome, died at Good Shepherd Manor in Momence, just south of Chicago, on Dec. 17 of natural causes associated with Alzheimer’s.

When he was 10, Cusack joined a Chicago Park District program for children with disabilities, where he met a young physical education teacher, Anne Burke, who is now the chief justice on the Illinois Supreme Court.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Burke laid the groundwork for the first Special Olympics at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 1968, at which Cusack won his first gold medal in the 25-yard freestyle swim.

Burke credits Cusack for her idea about creating a citywide track meet for children with special needs that morphed into the Special Olympics.

“He was the impetus,” Burke said. “He was the reason why we had the first Special Olympics.”

Credit: AP
FILE - In this May 11, 1988, file photo, Michael Cusack carries the torch around the track at the University of Chicago's Stagg Field during the Special Olympics opening ceremony in Chicago. (Charles Cherney/Chicago Tribune via AP, File)

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The Special Olympics has since branched out to more than 170 countries and millions of athletes. It has also become a human rights movement for a segment of society that often was shoved to the background.

The organization’s 50th anniversary was celebrated in Chicago in 2018.

Connie McIntosh, one of Cusack’s four sisters, described her brother as kind, gentle and polite, as well as good-humored. One of his favorite movies was “The Wizard of Oz” and he was a big Elvis Presley fan.

“He lived fully, and he was joyful,” she told the newspaper. “He was loving and he embraced being loved. He made us better people.”

Cusack continued to compete into his 50s, when a stroke led to him losing mobility in his left arm. Though swimming was his passion, he played multiple sports, including basketball, bowling, floor hockey and golf.

One of Cusack’s former coaches credited not just Cusack, but his family for advocating for kids with special needs. When he was a small child, Cusack’s parents, John and Esther Cusack, helped set up a special-needs school with other parents when they couldn’t find other options.

“That whole family made an impact on the world,” said Gerry Henaghan, one of Michael Cusack’s former coaches.

Cusack’s funeral is scheduled for Wednesday.