Martin Sheets, who became a face of the Special Olympics, winning more than 250 medals competing for more than 40 years in its events for people with intellectual disabilities, died on Thursday in Greensboro, N.C. He was 62.
He had dementia, his family said.
Mr. Sheets, born with Down syndrome, competed in golf, swimming, Alpine skiing, tennis and powerlifting at the Special Olympics, his participation in the movement going back to its first international summer games, at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 1968.
He became ill after arriving there and was unable to compete, but at a banquet concluding the event, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of the Special Olympics, having learned of his disappointment, walked over to his table.
“I understand you trained to come to the games but you got sick,” she said. “Well, Marty, for your guts and your effort, I want you to have a gold medal, too. Here you go. Marty Sheets, the winner of the special gold medal for bravery.”
She draped it around his neck.
In the years to come, there were medals aplenty for Mr. Sheets as an all-around athlete in events ranging from international to local competitions. Seven of his medals came in Special Olympics World Games.
Among his achievements, Mr. Sheets captured two medals in skiing at the first Special Olympics winter games, in 1977 at Steamboat Springs, Colo., and another two at the summer games in Minneapolis in 1991, lifting 225 pounds, slightly more than twice his weight.
Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina presented Mr. Sheets with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine in 1999 as an outstanding representative of the state.
Mr. Sheets was named the PGA Tour’s 2006 national volunteer of the year for his longtime work helping spectators keep track of players’ scores at the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C. In 2013, he became the first Special Olympian inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in Raleigh.
Mrs. Shriver chose Mr. Sheets as one of five Special Olympians portrayed with her in an oil painting by David Lenz. It was unveiled at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington in May 2009, three months before her death.
Mr. Sheets’s father, David, said in a telephone interview on Sunday: “Through the years, we’ve had so many people with children or other family members with special needs say how much it’s meant to see Marty and know of his accomplishments. He’s been an inspiration to them.”
Martin David Sheets was born on March 31, 1953, in Raleigh, one of three children of David and Iris Sheets. When he was a youngster, the family moved to Greensboro but found it difficult to obtain services for him.
“We moved him to five or six different schools because they didn’t have a place for him,” Mrs. Sheets told Timothy Shriver, a son of Eunice and R. Sargent Shriver and the chairman of Special Olympics, in his book “Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most” (2014), an account of the Kennedy family’s efforts on behalf of the mentally disabled.
Martin’s athletic pursuits began at a summer camp for special-needs children operated by Greensboro’s recreation department under a grant from the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation.
“Marty did well in that camp,” David Sheets told Timothy Shriver. “Marty loved swimming, and he was pretty good at it.”
David Sheets, who had been a quarterback for Wake Forest’s freshman football team, said that while his son had benefited from coaching, he “had some natural athletic ability.”
Martin enrolled in special education courses in high school while competing in the Special Olympics and graduated in 1972. He then worked for many years in the stock department at a Macy’s store.
In addition to his parents, he is survived by his sisters Nancy Grantham and Jamie Gulledge.
Mr. Sheets was invited to sit in the presidential box with President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Special Olympics summer games in New Haven in 1995. But it turned out that his seat, directly behind the Clintons, was supposed to be occupied by a Secret Service agent, so he switched to an adjoining seat.
“That put him next to the great soccer player Pelé,” David Sheets told The News & Record of Greensboro in 2013. “And before too long, Pelé was introducing Marty to everyone he knew. He’s had a great life.”