Marty Sheets sat with President Bill Clinton and has associated with movie stars. He has played golf with Gary Player, skied with Olympic medalist Billy Kidd, and played tennis with Arthur Ashe.
Sheets’ is part of a portrait that hangs in the Smithsonian Institute and his picture has been used as the face of an international movement. He has even had a golf tournament named for him.
But Thursday night he will receive perhaps his greatest honor when he is inducted into the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame.
Sheets, 60, who has Down syndrome, is being inducted because of the more than 250 Special Olympics championships that he has won in swimming, tennis, golf and power lifting.
“Marty has lived a charmed life,” said his father, Dave Sheets.
Sheets will be one of 11 people inducted during the hall’s 50th anniversary. After Thursday’s induction ceremony, the hall will have 300 members. Memorabilia and notable accomplishments are showcased on the third floor of the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh.
The inductions will be celebrated with a free fan fest Thursday afternoon before the night’s ticketed induction ceremonies.
Kevin Brafford, the associate director of the Hall of Fame, said Sheets, who has suffered from dementia in recent years, earned his spot among North Carolina’s great athletes.
“He is a North Carolina treasure,” Brafford said. “He has made many unique contributions to sports in North Carolina and is certainly worthy of induction.”
Marty Sheets has surprised people his entire life. He was born prematurely at Rex Hospital in Raleigh and weighed 4 pounds, 13 ounces. He stayed in an incubator for 15 days before he went home to a house near the old Mary Elizabeth Hospital on Wake Forest Road
His parents still remember the doctor’s words when they were told that their son had Down syndrome.
“Don’t expect much,” recalled Iris Sheets, his mother. “But who could have imagined?”
Iris said Marty inherited his athletic ability from his father, who came from New Jersey to Wake Forest University on an athletic scholarship when the school was located in Wake Forest. He worked at Montgomery Ward; Iris worked at the Carolina Country Club. They had no dreams of greatness for their son.
A gold medal
After the family moved to Greensboro, Marty became a good swimmer and was one of three athletes from North Carolina to attend the first International Special Olympics Summer Games in Chicago in 1968.
The Special Olympics athlete’s oath of “Let me win. But if I can not win, let me be brave in the attempt” was introduced to about 1,000 athletes from 26 states and Canada at Soldier Field.
Sheets became ill and was too sick to swim, but at the banquet a spotlight hovered over him as founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver came to his table and presented him with a gold medal for epitomizing the spirit of the games. Sheets is part of a portrait of Shriver that hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
The Special Olympics movement continued to grow and in 1977 Sheets was selected to train for skiing. He learned to ski at the Swiss-French Ski College in Blowing Rock and went to the Special Olympics in Steamboat Springs, Colo., where he worked with Kidd. Sheets won two bronze medals.
He travelled to the University of Notre Dame for the games in 1987 to play tennis and was selected to join singer John Denver in leading the U.S. delegation into the stadium during the opening ceremonies. He played tennis with Ashe during practice and met gymnast Mary Lou Retton.
Sheets attended the World Summer Games in Minneapolis in 1991 as a power lifter and won two medals. He weighed 110 pounds, could dead lift 225 pounds and was featured on the national television coverage of the games.
For the 25th anniversary of Special Olympics, Sheets played golf in Orlando, Fla. He was named to the Special Olympics Golf Committee and was the grand marshal of a parade at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.
Sheets topped that in 1995 when he was invited to sit in the presidential box with Bill and Hillary Clinton at the World Summer Games in Connecticut. When the World Summer Games came to the Triangle in 1999, he was pictured on the promotional posters. He met Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver during the games and participated in the opening ceremonies with former Duke basketball star Grant Hill.
Sheets had been a volunteer at the PGA’s Wyndham Championship in Greensboro for 15 years when he was named the PGA’s national volunteer of the year in 2006. He recorded a hole-in-one the next year, acing No. 7 at the Oak Hollow Golf Course in High Point.
But going into the N.C. Sports of Hall Fame is special – a milestone – because he is the first Special Olympics athlete to be inducted.
“It is a major accomplishment,” his father said. “It is mighty important that a Special Olympic athlete be recognized. I really think this is the dream that Mrs. (Eunice) Shriver had – that one day people like Marty would be recognized for what they can do, for their ability not their disability.
“He is going into the hall because he is a great athlete.”