Written by: Roxanne Brown, Daily Commercial
Special Olympics athlete Luis Martinez celebrated the completion of his fourth year participating in the Lake County leg of the Law Enforcement Torch Run with high fives, handshakes, smiles, hugs and a heartfelt thank you to those who once again made it possible.
Martinez, 29, who is in a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy, was pushed by members of the newly formed Mid-Florida Metro SWAT Team, which consists of SWAT members from the Clermont, Mount Dora and Leesburg police departments.
“I’m very happy that these people run with us and that they run with me and are able to push me and make me feel involved. It means the world,” Martinez said. “It just shows not only me, but others, that they care about people like me because they know I struggle.”
On Thursday, Martinez and his helpers were joined by fellow athletes and hundreds of other law enforcement and government personnel from at least 15 agencies around Lake County.
They all took turns carrying the “Flame of Hope” in the 36th annual run that benefits Special Olympics of Florida by way of a 3.2-mile trek through town, a small part of the statewide relay that has more than 5,000 participants and spans 1,500 miles across the state.
Clermont Police Chief Charles Broadway holds the flame as he leads the Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics Florida in Clermont on Thursday. [PAUL RYAN / CORRESPONDENT]
Clermont Police Chief Charles Broadway, who runs each year in full uniform to show support, led the run and was the first one to carry the torch.
“Because Special Olympics is headquartered right here in Clermont, it’s important that as a person, as an agency, as a community and as a county, we get together to show support and love for these athletes,” Broadway said.
The final leg of the run delivers the “Flame of Hope” to the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics Florida State Summer Games at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports on May 17.
Special Olympics Florida’s Laura Collins, the run director, said the participating agencies sell t-shirts and hats and together with this event, make up the organization’s largest grassroots fundraising, support and awareness effort.
“The money that’s required to put that on is considerable and this event raises a lot of money statewide. The awareness of it is equally important,” Collins said.
Special Olympics athlete Maryann Gonzalez, 54, said she is thankful for everything the law enforcement agencies do to show their support. Gonzalez, who has been an athlete since she was a child, said she believes it goes deeper than just fundraising for both parties, however.
“They could just sell the shirts, turn in the money and be done, but they make the run, and a lot of them show up on the opening day of our games and make it a special day for all the athletes,” Gonzalez said. “There’s nothing like having people rooting for you and showing their support and what they do, it makes the athletes feel like we have the community behind us.”
“It’s inspirational to look out and see so many of them here for us.”