Special Olympics USA Games Law Enforcement Torch Run

Eight athletes will represent Marion County at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games, being held for the first time in Florida and including equestrians for the first time.


Brett Harper, left, and James Caulfield, right, run with the Special Olympics torch with law enforcement officers during the Special Olympics USA Games Law Enforcement Torch Run at Stirrups ‘n Strides Therapeutic Riding Center in Citra, Fla. on Thursday, June 2, 2022. Five local equestrian riders, including four from Stirrups ‘n Strides will be competing in the Special Olympics in Orlando from May 20 to June 6, 2022. According to a press release: For the last 40 years, members of the law enforcement community have been going beyond the call of duty for the most marginalized citizens in their communities and volunteering together for acceptance and inclusion on behalf of people with intellectual disabilities – the athletes of Special Olympics. The Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics is the largest grassroots fundraiser for Special Olympics. More than 100,000 law enforcement members in all 50 U.S. States, 12 Canadian provinces/territories, and 44 other countries contribute to LETR efforts annually as Guardians of the Flame, ensuring the delivery of the Special Olympics Flame of Hope to the Opening Ceremonies of local Special Olympics competitions, state/provincial Games, and national/regional Games. the Torch Run is a running event where law enforcement officers and Special Olympics athletes run the “Flame of Hope” into the Opening Ceremonies of Special Olympics competitions. The LETR Final Leg for the 2022 USA Special Olympics Games in Orlando, takes place 20 May – 6 June 2022. A team of 70 members – which includes 55 law enforcement officer runners, 6 Special Olympics athletes, and logistics personnel – will serve as Guardians of the Flame as they run the Flame of Hope starting in Chicago, Illinois with the Flame Lighting at the Eternal Flame in honor of Special Olympics founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.

Home » Community
Posted June 2, 2022 | Photos by Bruce Ackerman bruce@ocalagazette.com
Article by Susan Smiley-Height susan@magnoliamediaco.com

The first sighting of the Flame of Hope coming down the long driveway at the Stirrups n’ Strides Therapeutic Riding Center in north Marion County drew raucous cheering and thunderous applause early Thursday, June 2.

Waiting on horseback inside the spacious covered arena were the five local members of the team that will be representing Marion County in the first-ever equestrian competitions as part of the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games, scheduled for June 5-12 in Orlando. This marks the first time the event has been held in Florida.

The Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics is the largest grassroots fundraiser for Special Olympics. A small contingent of the more than 100,000 law enforcement members in all 50 U.S. states, 12 Canadian provinces/territories and 44 other countries, along with three athletes who will participate in the games, brought the symbolic torch into the arena on Thursday in what is known as the Law Enforcement Torch Run Final Leg. Also participating in the ceremony was the Marion County Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol Color Guard.

Betty Gray, executive director of Stirrups n’ Strides, based in Citra, is the equestrian coach for Florida’s team in the USA Games. The local equestrians who will be going to Orlando are Ashley Quesnel, Becky Richter, Adam Warch and Kathy Gray, who is Betty’s daughter, as well as Alexia McCue, a member of Tomorrow’s Equestrian Center in Morriston, who has been training with the other four at Stirrups n’ Strides.

In addressing the crowd on Thursday, Betty Gray thanked everyone for “coming to participate in this awesome ceremony. As the head coach for the equestrian team of Florida, I am proud of all the athletes who have worked so hard to get ready for this event and let’s wish them all the best luck there is. We are expecting 5,500 athletes and we are so excited to have five athletes we have had in training since last summer. It’s so exciting.”

John Newnan, the Region II Coordinator and Final Leg Committee Chair, was a law enforcement officer in Howard County in Maryland for 36 years. He became involved with the torch run program in 1986.

“We do a lot of things to raise money and support Special Olympics. We have our annual torch runs around the world every year before the Summer Games. We jump in cold water, called the polar plunge; we wait on tables, called Tip A Cop; you name it, we’ll do it, and it’s all on our off-duty time. Since 1981 we’ve raised almost a billion dollars for Special Olympics. Last year, in very trying COVID times, we still raised $40 million for Special Olympics,” he said.

He said the group at Stirrups n’ Strides, which was traveling in a brightly decorated tour bus, was part of a larger group that was making runs on both coasts of the state leading up to their reunion in Orlando.

“We will meet back together later today. We started May 20, a small group of us, in Chicago, where we lit the Flame of Hope at the eternal flame honoring Eunice Kennedy Shriver at the birthplace of Special Olympics. Then we went to Ohio, Connecticut, down to New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia… we are constantly on the move, spreading the message of acceptance and inclusion for everybody every step of the way.”

He said that when the flame is ignited in Chicago, it is maintained in a “miner’s lamp.”

“So, every time we do a ceremony, we light that flame off the miner’s lamp so that’s the original flame from the eternal flame and we’ll deliver that to the athletes opening ceremony. We are the guardians of the Flame of Hope,” he said.

Newman said the law enforcement personnel who participate in the torch run program were chosen from agencies and programs in their states.

“It’s an honor to take part in this. It’s a passion for us. We work year-round. This is just one of the things we do, but all these officers work locally in their home programs raising money for Special Olympics. We thought it would be an honor to come here and promote the equestrian games, which is the first time ever and is so historic,” he said.

John Robles, director of Special Olympics Florida – Marion County, and a coach for Florida’s USA Games triathlon team, said three other local athletes also will be participating.

The triathletes are Adrienne Bunn, Zachary Deonath and Thomas Welsh.

“Adrienne is the number one female triathlete in Florida. She is very, very good,” Robles said. “They will do a 440-yard swim, 12.5-mile bike ride and a 5K run. The swim is a sprint and our athletes are super fast.”

“I am extremely excited and proud of the athletes representing Florida, so proud of everything our local athletes have accomplished and how hard they have trained. I look forward to them having a good time and showing us what they can do,” he added.

The games will offer 19 Olympic-style team and individual sports, including athletics (track & field), basketball, bocce, bowling, cheerleading, equestrian, flag football, golf, gymnastics, open water swimming, powerlifting, soccer, softball, stand up paddleboard, surfing, swimming, tennis, triathlon and volleyball.

Founded in 1968, Special Olympics is a global movement to end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities and foster acceptance of all people through the power of sport and programming in education, health and leadership. Special Olympics Florida provides year-round sports training and competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports.

As part of the ceremony on Thursday, Kathy Gray rode her mount, Lily, to the front of the arena and, in loud and firm voices, she and the other members of the equestrian team recited the Special Olympics athletes pledge: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

To learn more, including how to follow the games on social media, go to 2022specialolympicsusagames.org and specialolympicsflorida.org