Back in 1977 Maria Shriver was at a celebrity tennis tournament held in memory of her uncle Robert F. Kennedy when she spotted 30-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger. "I'm dying to meet him," she told Tom Brokaw, a mutual friend who happily made the introduction. Before the day was out, Shriver invited her future husband aboard a private plane headed for her family's house on Cape Cod. But looking back, Brokaw doesn't take credit for bringing them together. "If I hadn't introduced her," he says, "Maria would have knocked me down to meet him."
Twenty-six years later it has become clear that whether she's working to land the man of her dreams—or to propel him all the way to California's governorship—Maria Owings Shriver fights for what she wants. On Oct. 7, wearing a $1,000 Dolce & Gabbana dress and her grandmother Rose's diamond engagement ring, Shriver, 47, beamed as Schwarzenegger declared victory in Los Angeles. "I know how many votes I got today because of you," he told the world. Indeed, at the end of the race Shriver was constantly by his side, helping to blunt charges of sexual harassment that threatened Schwarzenegger's candidacy. "When it comes to her husband, kids and friends, Maria is like a lioness with her cubs," says her good friend Wanda McDaniel Ruddy, who notes that Shriver shed 15 lbs. during the effort. "She didn't eat because she was too busy. She was running on adrenaline."
Except for a weekend spent with her family at their lavish lodge in Sun Valley, Idaho, she hasn't slowed down much since. On the morning of Oct. 8 Shriver sat down her four children—Katherine, 13, Christina, 12, Patrick, 10, and Christopher, 6—for a lecture in Daddy's-the-Governor 101 to brief them on a role she knows all too well—that of a politician's kid. Shriver's friends say she'll likely use her honorary position as the state's first lady to help women entrepreneurs and the disabled, a cause dear to her mother, Eunice, 82, who founded the Special Olympics in 1968. But don't expect her to spend time cutting ribbons. "I can't imagine she's going to move to Sacramento and pour tea," says her old pal Brokaw.
Still officially on leave from NBC's Dateline, Shriver called the network's news chief, Neal Shapiro, shortly after the election. "She said, 'Neal, I want to come back,' " Shapiro recalls, "and I said, 'We all want you to come back.' " NBC named one condition: no political stories until Arnold leaves office. "It's got to be frustrating," says Dateline producer Sandy Gleysteen, who has known Shriver for 17 years, "that with all her political reporting experience, she won't be covering one of the biggest stories—and it's in her own backyard."
Then again, Shriver has been living history all her life. The only daughter of five children born to Eunice Kennedy Shriver, one of JFK's younger sisters, and Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, she grew up outside Washington, D.C., and those close to her say she inherited her parents' competitive drive. "Maria was a great horseback rider," recalls brother Timothy. "[But] she had kind of a weak horse. People would always say, 'Switch your horse.' But she loved that horse, and she was going to figure out a way to make it win." In the end, says Tim, "Maria was so relentless, [the horse] didn't matter."
After watching reporters cover her father's disastrous run as George McGovern's running mate in 1972, Shriver developed an interest in journalism that stayed with her through college at Georgetown University. At her first job—as a coffee-fetching intern at a Philadelphia TV station—she favored peasant dresses that hid her weight and worried that others thought she was coasting on her name, say former colleagues. When Tim would call, he recalls, "she'd say, 'I'm terrible, I'm exhausted.' What was she going to do? 'Do it more.' " In 1978 she moved to a station in Baltimore, working her way up to producer and befriending Oprah
Winfrey, a talk show host on her way to the top. "They used to talk diets," says Richard Sher, Winfrey's cohost. "They tried lots of them."
Shriver moved to Los Angeles to be closer to Schwarzenegger six years before their 1986 wedding and looked for work as an anchor. An agent told her to think twice. " 'You look terrible...lose weight and get your act together,' he told me," Shriver recalled in McCall's magazine in 1988. She did just that, dropping 40 lbs. and signing with the same agent who had rejected her.
Today she remains meticulous about her appearance—"You won't see her out in a baseball cap," says pal Gleysteen—and avid about exercise, hitting the treadmill every day. Friends flatly deny she has an eating disorder, however. "She has an unusual face," says one, "that with age appears more angular. To keep the weight off her bum it shows in her face, but she is the most fit person I know."
In Schwarzenegger, Shriver has said she found a soulmate with a similar commitment to hard work and a love of politics, even if they belong to different parties. "They're like James Carville and Mary Matalin," says a former family employee. Now, with a stateful of voters to serve, they have a chance to put their passions to work. "Politics is in Maria's blood," says her cousin Douglas Kennedy, a reporter at FOX News.
"She's going to have the time of her life."
Lorenzo Benet, Lyndon Stambler and Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles, Macon Morehouse and Melody Simmons in Washington, D.C., and Jennifer Longley in New York City