For 18 Special Olympics athletes, a burning torch symbolizes so much more than a race through Carroll County.
The Carroll County Law Enforcement Torch Run brought together more than 200 members of law enforcement, Special Olympics athletes, volunteers, and family members Wednesday to raise money for Special Olympics Maryland. Athletes, all taking turns carrying the torch at the front of the pack, were paired with officers, from all corners of the county, with routes starting in Sykesville, Hampstead/Manchester, Taneytown, Mount Airy, Union Bridge/New Windsor and Westminster, according to a news release.
“It’s a day where everyone can come together,” Manchester Police officer Zeb Rohrback said. “I look forward to it every year.”
Rohrback has been coming to the event for about seven years. Athlete Woody Higgs rode shotgun in Rohrback’s police cruiser. Higgs’ mother, Donna McGuire, is the fundraising coordinator for Carroll County Special Olympics.
“These police officers make them feel so comfortable and welcome,” McGuire said. “My athletes get so much out of this.”
This year marked the greatest number of athletes to participate in the event, according to McGuire.
The participants converged at McDaniel College for the last 1.8 miles of the journey.
While waiting at McDaniel, athlete Sean McCann, of Westminster, was eager to get the last leg of the race started. He was the first athlete to hold the torch for the final leg, along with Maryland State Police Sgt. Tony Riley. McCann said it “feels great” to run alongside the officers.
This was athlete David Henline’s fourth year participating. Henline said he enjoys running and getting to know the officers.
The Torch Run movement has raised $733 million internationally for Special Olympics since the fundraiser started in 1981 in Kansas, according to former Westminster Police Chief Jeff Spaulding.
Sixteen law enforcement agencies participated in the Carroll County event Wednesday, according to Spaulding.
“It’s a great partnership,” Spaulding said. “We always get more out of it than we put into it.”
He organized the Carroll County event the last 15 years and passed the figurative torch to state police Detective Sgt. Michael Knight this year.
“It kind of hits home,” Knight said.
His 3-year-old daughter, Molly, has Down Syndrome and may be a Special Olympics athlete one day, he said. Molly waited for her father at the finish line.
Athletes walked, ran, and rode in police vehicles as they approached the end of the run. Red and blue lights lit up the town and sirens blared the entire way. Bicyclists followed the pedestrians and spectators cheered from the sidewalks. The 149th Maryland State Police Academy class yelled cadences along the way to keep everyone on pace.
“It was hard jogging up the hills,” said athlete Destiny Murphy, of Eldersburg.
Despite the climb, Destiny felt “good” when she crossed the finish line. She ran with brother, Matthew, who said he was “happy” to have police officers by his side. This was their first time participating in the event, their mother, Theresa Murphy, said.
“I can’t wait for them to do it next year,” she said.
Athlete Chloe Fetzer, of Westminster, came out for the second year and said “it was great” to experience law enforcement’s support.
Elected officials and members of law enforcement praised the athletes from the steps of city hall.
“This is truly a unified effort,” Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees said.
DeWees wants the Special Olympics community to know it has a “strong ally” in law enforcement across Carroll County.
Since the inception of the Maryland Torch Run, $58.2 million has been raised for Special Olympics, and Maryland law enforcement contributed more than $3.2 million last year, DeWees said, noting that this year marked the 33rd anniversary of the Torch Run in Maryland.
During the last leg of the race, the group was joined by middle school students.
Westminster East, Westminster West, and Shiloh middle schools raised funds for the cause, with East Middle taking home the trophy for raising the most at nearly $1,700, DeWees said. The schools collectively raised $3,000.
Commissioner Stephen Wantz called the race “one of the best torch runs in the state of Maryland.” Commissioner Ed Rothstein encouraged everyone to “run fast, throw far, but most of all, have fun” as the Special Olympics Maryland Summer Games begin Friday at Towson University.
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“The community is so generous,” DeWees said after the event. “These athletes have become almost family to us.”