They ran dressed in purple – police and corrections officers, special constables and other law enforcement men and women, athletes young and old – after the Special Olympics torch downtown Friday morning.
An annual tradition put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this was Duval County’s first local Special Olympics Torch Run since 2019, approximately 130 people kicked off 10 morning hours from the Police Memorial Building for the 1 mile run.
Led by torchbearer and Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Director Larry Schmitt, they were among the most 5,000 officers who have and will carry the torch on a 1,500 mile relay across Florida’s 67 counties. The Final Torch Point: May 20-21, as 600 Florida athletes compete in the State Summer Games at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World.
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It took two long years to wait for the state games and the torch run, said Ken Roop, director of law enforcement torch runs for Special Olympics Florida.
“There was elation and a lot of phone calls about ‘When are we going to do this’ and ‘How can I get involved,'” Roop said. “Everyone really got on board about it.”
Athletes and officers gathered on the Bay Street steps of the sheriff’s office. Students from area schools joined officers, deputies, privates and constables from eight agencies, from the sheriff’s office to the Beaches Police Department. All wore this year’s purple “Guardians of the Flame” shirts, sales of which to law enforcement raised about $5,000 for Special Olympics.
Special Olympian Leigh Ann Gray led the Pledge of Allegiance after Megan Bell swore the athlete, asking to let them win, but if they can’t, ‘let me be brave in this attempt “.
Deputy Chief Paul Restivo handed the lit torch to Schmitt so he could lead the first leg to the Jacksonville Fairgrounds.
Leigh Ann and other Duval County Special Olympians were looking forward to racing Friday and then competing in the state games in May, her mother said.
“They’re so, so excited, it’s beyond exciting to get back into everything,” Pam Gray said. “I’m so excited it’s back. Swimming and bowling are getting ready to start, and this year we actually have people working with them in the surf. So she’s excited.”
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The regional games were held April 9 with 400 athletes from Duval and eight other area counties competing in multiple sports at Atlantic Coast High School. Now they are focused on the Florida Summer Games next month.
The Fernandina Beach Police Department run also took place on Friday. The next regional torch stop is Clay County on April 29 starting at 10 a.m. at the Publix at County Road 220 and Town Center Parkway. The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office is scheduled for June 4, and the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office has already completed its stage on April 16.
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A number of Florida athletes are also expected to compete in the 2022 Special Olympics USA June 5-12 in Orlando. And the Duval County Special Olympics is hosting a Zone 4 surfing competition on July 16 at Little Talbot Island State Park. The complete schedule of all Florida Law Enforcement Torch Runs is at bit.ly/3v5Mdha.
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