They launched shortly after 10 a.m. Thursday, more than 100 local law enforcement officers and Special Olympics athletes running from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office to the fairgrounds.
Leading the way were Jacksonville Special Olympian Megan Bell with the torch run flag; Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Director Larry Schmitt, the torchbearer; and dozens of police and corrections officers, special agents and other law enforcement men and women all clad in special green T-shirts.
The Jacksonville stop is an important one, said Ken Roop, director for Special Olympics Florida’s Law Enforcement Torch Runs. It celebrates the 40th anniversary of the first law enforcement torch run, when more than 5,000 officers carry the torch on a 1,500-mile relay through Florida’s 67 counties before it flares above the state Summer Games in a month,
“This is a big stop and a big county, so we are really excited,” Roop said. “It raises money for Special Olympics. It also raises awareness. We want to be in a popular spot like this in front of the police station, and we want people to ask, ‘Why are all these people wearing green T-shirts and carrying a torch?'”
Special Olympics, celebrating its 51st anniversary nationally, provides year-round sports training and competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for people with intellectual disabilities to help develop physical fitness and participate in competitive events.
Those who participate and compete do so for free, with everything provided by the nonprofit organization. The largest fundraiser for Special Olympics events nationwide comes through contributions and sales of the Torch Run T-shirts and caps done by law enforcement and others, tallying $1 billion worldwide this year, Roop said.
Locally, athletes compete in numerous events including surfing, bowling and track and field events. They also compete in the Special Olympics Area 4 summer games, held March 25 at Jacksonville’s Atlantic Coast High School, with athletes from Northeast Florida. Winners of those events join 600 Florida athletes competing on May 19 and 20 in track and field, bocce, cheerleading, cycling, soccer and volleyball at the State Summer Games at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World.
And as they prepare for the state games, the torch makes its ceremonial way through every sheriff’s office and many police departments in the state.
Law enforcement officers from over 300 agencies — police departments, sheriff’s offices, Florida Department of Corrections, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, FBI, DEA, U.S. Customs, Air Force Police and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission — all participate in the statewide torch run.
The intrastate torch relay began March 27 in Pensacola as officers from that region began carrying the Flame of Hope through Florida. The Clay County Sheriff’s Office had a 3.4-mile-long torch run April 14, as did the Fernandina Beach Police Department. The Putnam County Sheriff’s Office will have its torch run at 9 a.m. April 29 at Palatka’s Riverfront Park to the Ravine Gardens. Nassau County’s will be at 1 p.m. May 9 from West Nassau High School to Callahan.
The final leg will be May 19.
Jacksonville-area athletes and officers first gathered Thursday on the East Bay Street steps of the Sheriff’s Office, all wearing this year’s green “Guardians of the Flame” shirts. Bell gave the athlete’s oath, asking to let them win, but if they cannot, “let me be brave in the attempt.” Then the torch was run up the stairs to the sheriff, who passed it to Schmidt, who led the first leg of the torch run with Bell carrying the flag.
“It’s an amazing turnout,” Sheriff T.K. Waters said as he looked at the crowd of green-shirted runners Thursday morning. “Today, my JSO family, thank you for the gift of your time and your treasure.”
Special Olympics USA said it plans to send ta 201-member delegation to represent the United States at the 2023 Special Olympics World Games June 17-25 in Berlin.