It spread through the crowd like wildfire: “Can you hear it?” The “it” was the distant sound of sirens. This sound can often provoke unsettling emotions in people, but this time, it sent 4,000 athletes, coaches, volunteers, and spectators into a state of nearly unbearable anticipation.
The Special Olympics Florida State Summer Games Opening Ceremony were finally approaching the moment everyone looks forward to each summer: the entrance of the Law Enforcement Torch Run. The “Final Leg” team consisted of more than 400 law enforcement officials from throughout Florida who represented the thousands of law enforcement personnel who participate in the statewide Torch Run each year.
First, Dave Sklarek (retired, Osceola County Sheriff’s Office), our volunteer State Director of the Torch Run was up. He spoke briefly about Torch Run and what it means to him and the law enforcement community to be the Guardians of the Flame. Then, he introduced the Guardians of the Flame Escort: Honor Guard from around the state marched through the crowd and onto the field.
As the sirens grew louder, the entire crowd was on its feet, eyes fixed on the outfield wall of the baseball stadium of Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, knowing that at any moment, this annual homecoming of sorts would occur. The “Flame of Hope” was about to make its way to its rightful owners – the athletes of Special Olympics Florida.
First came the motorcycles with lights flashing and sirens blaring, followed by an array of cruisers and vehicles. The entire stadium’s perimeter was ablaze with law enforcement vehicles. Next around the corner was the Final Leg team – columns of runners escorting in the Flame of Hope.
The deafening roar extended into a standing ovation, and it was impossible to tell who was more moved – the spectators or law enforcement.
There were at least 200 runners from all over the state, including veterans and first-timers. Osceola County Sheriff Russ Gibson had the honor of being the final law enforcement official to pass the torch to the four Special Olympics Florida athletes who would run the torch to the cauldron.
One participant, Deputy Doc McDonald from Nassau County said, “This is the most heartwarming event I’ve ever seen! I’ll tell everyone in my agency that if they don’t take the time to come to Final Leg, they will never truly get what we’re doing!”
For thirty-four years, the Special Olympics Flame of Hope has traversed Florida in an intrastate relay of simultaneous routes throughout the state, covering countless thousands of miles by a legion of dedicated supporters, Florida’s law enforcement community.
To this day, the torch is carried by local and state law enforcement officers all the way to the Opening Ceremony of the annual State Summer Games; which was held at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex on Friday, May 19.
Statewide, the participating chiefs, officers, sheriffs, deputies, agents, and cadets from virtually every branch of federal, state, county, and municipal law enforcement, represent a total of more than 300 different agencies that serve as Guardians of the Flame. Thank you to the Florida law enforcement officers who participated in this year’s Final Leg and to all in the law enforcement community who support Special Olympics Florida year-round.
Written by: Laura Collins, Director, Law Enforcement Torch Run