"Special Olympics is my hero. Special Olympics gives me more than I give them."

Special Olympian Cindy Bentley is stumped. Asked to identify the most hopeless time in her life, she can't think of a single example.

It's a sharp contrast to her list of proudest moments. There was the time she carried the US flag at the 1995 Special Olympics World Summer Games with speedskater and Olympic gold medalist Dan Jansen. Or her talk with tennis star Monica Seles. Or this year's Summer Games in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she encountered Lynn Swann, former wide receiver of the Pittsburgh Steelers and member of the NFL Hall of Fame. When she met Swann, Bentley had just won two awards in tennis: third place in doubles and fifth place in singles.

"My mom, you know, she's not here anymore," she finally says, returning to the question at hand. "But I know she's here in spirit."

Her mother died in 1975 of cirrhosis of the liver, when Bentley was 18.

"I made a promise to myself. I'm not going to be like my relatives and my mother and have a drinking problem," said Bentley. Her voice is slow and slightly slurred, a result of fetal alcohol syndrome and damage from other drugs. Bentley also suffers from seizures, fits of forgetfulness and difficulty controlling motor skills in one of her hands.

Despite her disabilities, it's no surprise that Bentley has won medals in basketball, track, speed skating, volleyball and tennis. Since the day she was born, her physical resilience has proven to be her saving grace.

"They gave me 24 hours to live," she says, referring to her first day in Milwaukee County Hospital. Cocaine, alcohol and heroin raced through Bentley's veins as she struggled against the addictions of her mother.

It was not the last time that Bentley would enter a hospital on her deathbed.

Bentley was only 2 ? years old when one of her many foster mothers lit her shirt on fire. By the time the woman's husband entered the room, Bentley's stomach, back and right arm were blistering from third-degree burns. It took nine skin-grafting surgeries to repair the damage.

"She's in prison for the rest of her life," says the 42-year-old Bentley, with a hint of justice in her voice.

By the time she left the foster care system and entered the Southern Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled in Union Grove, Illnois, Bentley was angry.

"She was a brat, a manipulator, but not difficult to handle," says Nancy Molitor, Bentley's former teacher, who estimates that Bentley places academically at the fourth-grade level. "She needed a lot of pressure to make her want to do whatever."

Christine Glader, a recreation therapist at Southern Wisconsin Center, agreed. She helped Bentley train for short sprint races in the late 1960s. "It was just like a kid. It was whine, complain, complain, and then run and run and run. But the next day, she'd be back," says Glader.

Bentley was not a natural at sports when she first started to compete. "She didn't throw the ball very well," says Mary Mackey, a retired agency representative for the Southern Wisconsin Center who was one of Bentley's first Special Olympics coaches. "And she was kind of slow running."

But Bentley also had an inner drive to succeed. "She kind of decided on her own to be something," says Mackey. "She started showing more interest."

It wasn't until the mid-1980s, Bentley says, that she started to blossom. She had moved to a new group home in Milwaukee and joined the Special Olympics North Suburban team. Soon she was playing sports year-round, training in soccer, snowshoeing, bowling, softball and swimming, among others. Her marked improvement convinced friends and counselors that it was time for Bentley to live on her own.

"It wasn't really my decision at first," says Bentley, who was initially frightened of the change. She started renting her own apartment in 1987 and has been independent ever since.

The confidence Bentley gains from being self-reliant feeds her charisma and desires to help others, say friends.

These very qualities enabled Bentley to land her current job with department store Marshall Fields, says Amy Brecher, Development Director of Special Olympics Wisconsin-Greater Milwaukee.

According to Brecher, in 1998, Marshall Fields held a bake sale to benefit Special Olympics. Bentley decided to help out with the sale, which was set up in front of a local mall. At first, Bentley sat at the table with a fellow volunteer and watched the customers walk by without purchasing anything. She then started introducing herself and Special Olympics to people walking in and out of the store, encouraging them to buy a cupcake here or a brownie there. It was not long before the table was empty.

A Marshall Fields human resources employee had been watching Bentley that entire day. Before she left that afternoon, Bentley had been offered a chance to interview for a job at Marshall Fields. She soon became an employee in the stockroom, a position she still holds today.

It is just one example of how Special Olympics activities have improved Bentley's life off of the playing field. "If they ask me to do volunteering, I do it, no strings attached," says Bentley. In addition to her role as a spokesperson, she is the first and only athlete to sit on the Wisconsin Special Olympics Board of Directors.

"Special Olympics is my hero," Bentley says. "Special Olympics gives me more than I give them." She lists those who have been particularly inspiring: Eunice Shriver, founder of Special Olympics; Karin Hawley, Area Director of Special Olympics Wisconsin-Greater Milwaukee and her coaches.

Bentley, in turn, has become a hero to others. "She said that she's given away five gold medallions and that she thinks that all five had been given to people who had died. But I reminded her that I'm quite sure that she gave one to somebody who's living," says Sister Helen Gourlay, who volunteers with Bentley at the Shade Tree Family Resource Center in Milwaukee. According to Gourlay, Bentley slips her hard-earned Special Olympics medals directly into the caskets as parting gifts. "That's one of the most touching things I've ever seen," says Gourlay. "She is an amazing woman."