BIG TIMBER — The 83-mile ride in a spacious motor home from Big Timber to Billings on Tuesday morning was something a little different for Jessica Hasler, 25.
The Billings native has been competing in more than a half-dozen events for Special Olympics Montana for the past 18 years, and almost every time law enforcement officials have been there to cheer her along, liberally handing out high fives and presenting medals.
“Today, I’ll be cheering them on and giving them high fives,” Hasler said.
As a Special Olympics ambassador, she was one of four local athletes invited to join 34 officials from 10 area agencies for the Law Enforcement Torch Run, in which they ran and biked the Flame of Hope from Big Timber to Billings for the SOMT State Summer Games, which kicks off Wednesday and runs through Friday in Billings.
On Wednesday evening, officers will run the torch the final 1.8 miles to Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark and use it to light the cauldron, signaling the official start of the 2012 games.
Officers from across Montana started their torch runs in 14 locations beginning on May 1. When all is said and done, they’ll have run 2,300 miles.
On Tuesday morning, sheriff’s deputies and emergency officials from Wheatland County brought the torch 45 miles from Harlowton to Big Timber.
“It’s just amazing,” said Deputy Randy Cameron, the leg leader to Big Timber. “That’s the best way to describe it. You can’t understand it until you do it. I didn’t know we had athletes in Harlowton until I started doing this and now I see them all over town, and they just come up to you all the time.”
When everybody arrived, they headed over to Big Timber School for a quick handoff ceremony in front of hundreds of young students. The kids gathered outside in the parking lot, holding signs and cheering on the runners and athletes, organized by Sweet Grass County Sheriff’s Office officials.
With the state games going on so close to home, the department saw increased effort from its deputies, emergency responders and dispatchers.
“This is the biggest percent we’ve had to date,” said Lt. Alan Ronneberg. “It shows our Special Olympics athletes what kind of support is out there for them.”
A pair of horseback riders left the school and carried the torches the two miles out of town before handing them to a pair of bicycle riders at the Interstate 90 eastbound onramp.
Law enforcement representatives from the Billings Police Department; Sweet Grass, Stillwater and Yellowstone counties; the U.S. Marshals Service; Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks; the Montana Highway Patrol; state Probation and Parole; the Drug Enforcement Agency; and the Yellowstone County Attorneys Office then ran and biked the Flame of Hope to Billings.
“We did this last year and just came away saying we wanted to do more,” said U.S. Marshals Deputy David Wollschlager, who is co-leg leader along with Marshals Deputy Timothy Hornung. “We can do more than make arrests.”
The torch run is the largest grass-roots fundraiser internationally for Special Olympics. It brings in more than $20 million annually.
The Montana torch run has been honored each year since 1999 for its efforts, often placing in the top five worldwide for per-capita fundraising. Last year, it brought in more than $500,000 for SOMT, and the goal this year is $600,000.
Officers across the state raise money all year through T-shirt sales, tip-a-cop, polar plunges, billboard sit-ins, fire truck pulls, poker runs, truck convoys and other events.
“The Torch Run is the symbol of what we do but we fundraise year round,” said Billings Police Officer Tina Hoeger, the effort’s southeastern Montana region coordinator. “It’s a way for law enforcement to give back to the community and to support our athletes.”
When the group arrived in Billings, members ran the torch from the South 27th Street exit on I-90 to Dehler Park for a public Torch Run Barbecue.
The four athletes took turns riding in law enforcement vehicles and a large RV filled with participants while small groups ran or biked along I-90.
Hasler, who will compete in soccer and track and field events this week, started the morning on the RV and talked excitedly about the torch run and Special Olympics.
“I think it’s awesome what they do,” she said. “I know I couldn’t do that. I’ve been friends with a lot of the people here since I started Special Olympics and I’ve met more and we’re going to continue that forever.”