When Michael Heup trotted down the hill from the World War II Memorial to Jonas Green State Park in Annapolis, he was beaming.
By his side was Anne Arundel County police Cpl. Mike Shier, and more than 100 police officers jogged behind them. In his right hand was the Flame of Hope, a torch of the Law Enforcement Torch Run of the Maryland Special Olympics.
"We are here for him," said Capt. Frank Tewey, the Police Department's coordinator for the event, which brought the torch Tuesday from Glen Burnie to Annapolis.
Heup, 33, of Davidsonville, is the Maryland Law Enforcement Torch Run athlete ambassador, making him the Special Olympics athlete whose role is to be the face, inspiration and spokesman for the Law Enforcement Torch Run statewide.
As ambassador for three years, he will represent Maryland at a conference this fall in Disney World.
Law enforcement torch runs were held throughout the state last week as part of an effort by police nationwide to raise money for and awareness of the Special Olympics.
Maryland's Special Olympics are taking place this weekend at Towson University. Modeled on the Olympic games, the Special Olympics provide athletic training, competition and year-round events for intellectually disabled children and adults.
During this weekend's competition, Heup will compete in doubles tennis — and he warns competitors that he has a great backhand and forehand. He was also scheduled to play a key role in the opening ceremonies, entering with police runners and lighting the caldron.
Heup has participated in the games since he was 19 years old and has won more than 100 gold and silver Special Olympics medals, said his mother, Roxanne Heup. She credits the program with offering him a social life, challenging him, helping him mature and giving him confidence to try new things and test his abilities — and not only in the dozen sports he's tried.
Michael Heup said he's learned how to be part of a team, as well as the value of practice and trying his best. He trains daily, in addition to working at the Giant in the Festival at Riva, where he assists customers and stocks items.
"Every day, he reads something. He reads more and more on the computer," his mother said, noting that sometimes that's with Facebook friends and other times reading about something that has piqued his interest — religion, world events, fire engines and weather are among his interests.
Good-natured and outgoing, he also works to help others. His volunteer work doing chores at local volunteer fire companies led to his effort to train to be a volunteer firefighter. He was unable to meet all the requirements but completed many of the tough exercises and "grew a lot," his mother said.
He also stays busy with his friends, many made through Special Olympics.
"He's got such a great personality that you want to do things with him," said Scott Lewis, general manager of Sam's Club in Annapolis, a friend who called Heup "charismatic."
A few years ago, Heup arrived at Sam's Club with a group that challenged the store to raise $10,000 for the Polar Bear Plunge fundraiser. Heup became Lewis' "plunge partner," completing 24 plunges in frigid waters in 24 hours this past winter. Heup did it in fewer hours the previous year, Lewis recalled, because he had a sports meet to attend.
He delivers his message wherever he's invited, talking with local sports teams, at Special Olympics events or as the graduation speaker at Central Special School last week.
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As an infant, Heup was diagnosed with Williams syndrome, a condition that causes developmental delays and learning disabilities. At South River High School, he enjoyed participating in the marching band (he played drums) and junior varsity sports, but activities and interactions with others dried up after graduation in 1998.
Learning how to use a computer — his sister taught him — and an invitation to join a Special Olympics track team opened his world, he said. He's become proficient in sports and tackling other challenges. He said Special Olympics encouraged him to join the local kickball team in the World Adult Kickball Association.
On his way to get lunch after the torch run, he looked at the dozens of officers he called his "law enforcement family," and said he's thinking ahead to the next torch run.
"Hopefully, when we have it next year, we'll have even more," he said.
An earlier version of this story misstated when Michael Heup graduated from high school. The Sun regrets the error.