College of LAS « Illinois

James M. Benson

T.E.A.M. Builder

James Benson

James Benson will never forget the young man with cerebral palsy who completed the final link in an around-the-world bike ride—a daunting stretch from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. This man, Kevin Deegen, pedaled his oversized tricycle 3,000 miles using only his right hand, Benson says. But because the left side of Deegen's body did not function, he was constantly off-balance, falling from the bike nearly 70 times.

Deegen's amazing ride is just one of many stories of tenacity and courage that Benson has witnessed since founding World T.E.A.M Sports in 1991—with "T.E.A.M" standing for The Exceptional Athlete Matters. World T.E.A.M. Sports brings disabled and able-bodied athletes together in all types of "soul-stirring" challenges.

However, World T.E.A.M. Sports is only one example of Benson's ability to combine generosity of spirit with great leadership in his career, which together has earned him a 2006 LAS Alumni Achievement Award.

After receiving a BA in finance from the University of Illinois in 1968, Benson started with the Pacific Life Insurance Company, eventually working his way up to president and chief executive officer of the John Hancock Life Insurance Company. Currently, he serves as president and CEO of Clark Benson. Through it all, Benson managed to find the time to create World T.E.A.M. Sports and serve on numerous outreach organizations, such as the Christopher Reeve Foundation.

He has also remained closely involved with the U. of I. "team" as a Foundation member since 1997 and a director since 1999. In addition, he and his wife Marlene have endowed the James M. Benson Chair in Public Issues and Civic Leadership in the College of LAS.

"What makes Jim so special is the fact that he has shared the fruits of his success with those around him," says Jane Phillips Donaldson, a member of the Board of Directors of the U. of I. Foundation.

The earliest inspiration for Benson's work with disabled athletes was a close friend from high school, who dealt with congenital birth issues that kept him in a wheelchair until his death at age 24.

Benson went on to become involved with Special Olympics in California, but he saw the need to give disabled athletes a chance to participate side-by-side with able-bodied athletes—rather than compete only among themselves. So in 1987 he organized a cross-country bicycle trip from California to Florida. The trip, which included 25 Special Olympians on a squad of 40, drew national attention, culminating in an appearance on Good Morning, America.

When David Hartman, the Good Morning, America host, asked Benson on national TV what he planned to organize next, Benson had to think fast. Off the top of his head, he told Hartman he wanted to take a Special Olympic team on a climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro. Sure enough, in February of 1990, this spontaneous idea became reality when Benson and several coaches led 12 Special Olympians up Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa.

But it wasn't easy.

After an unexpected storm dumped three feet of snow, their porters panicked and ran off with most of their food. With conditions rapidly deteriorating, Benson says they eventually made it to the top of this 19,342-foot mountain, and it's all captured in a documentary, Let Me Be Brave, which won a Sports Emmy.

Today, World T.E.A.M. Sports continues to attract the support of a Who's Who from the sporting world, including Lance Armstrong, Nadia Comaneci, Bonnie Blair, Dan Jansen, and John McEnroe—all part of its sports advisory board.

Some world-class athletes also participate in the events, such as Greg LeMond, the first American to win the Tour de France bicycle race. In fact, LeMond became good friends with Kevin Deegen, the cyclist with cerebral palsy who impressed Benson so deeply. LeMond gave Deegen the yellow jersey he won in France because, as he put it, "Kevin deserves this jersey more than I do."

"World T.E.A.M. Sports brings people together who are unlikely to be in the same room, much less doing the same things," Benson says. "It creates bonds you would not have expected."

By Doug Peterson
Fall 2006