Montana law enforcement pounds the pavement for Special Olympics

2012-05-14T08:00:00Z 2012-05-15T16:31:26Z Montana law enforcement pounds the pavement for Special OlympicsBy ZACH BENOIT The Billings Gazette

When the Flame of Hope first touches the cauldron on May 16 for the 2012 Special Olympics Montana State Summer Games in Billings, it'll officially signal the start of the games, but it'll have taken a long journey to get there.

Thanks to more than 300 law enforcement officials from every corner of Montana, the torch will have traveled more than 2,300 miles along the state's highways, carried on foot and by bicycle for the Law Enforcement Torch Run.

"I think it goes to show that as law enforcement, we do more than just pick up bad guys and put them away," said U.S. Marshals Service Deputy Timothy Hornung, co-chair of the final leg of the run, from Big Timber to Billings.

Officers from just about every branch of law enforcement began carrying the Flame of Hope on May 1 from 14 places around the state. The final leg covers the 83 miles on May 15 from Billings to Big Timber and involves 33 officials from the area.

When the torch arrives in Billings on May 15, SOMT will host a Torch Run Barbeque that is open to the public at Dehler Park from 5 to 8 p.m. Food, drinks and entertainment will be provided.

The next day, they'll run the torch the last 1.8 miles from Dehler Park to Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark for the Opening Ceremonies, which begin at 6 p.m. A group of torchbearers, Mayor Tom Hanel and Buzz Tolliver, SOMT's athlete of the year, will then light the cauldron while the Circle of Honor -- representatives of the state's law enforcement agencies dressed in full uniform -- salute them.

"It's really moving to see," said Terri Sappington, Law Enforcement Torch Run coordinator. "I've been here a good 11 years and it still chokes me up every time I see that."

In advance of the run, law enforcement groups have been raising money to support Special Olympics Montana and its athletes. It's something that Montana has excelled at since the torch run started here in 1999.

That year, the state was recognized for the largest percent growth in fundraising. Beginning the next year and continuing through 2010, the state placed in the top five internationally for highest per capita fundraising.

All of the money raised goes toward Special Olympics Montana activities and supporting the athletes.

While the Montana LETR didn't hit that mark in 2011, it received special recognition for being one of a handful of states to raise more than $500,000.

The goal this year is $600,000, and while Sappington wouldn't say how much the effort's raised this year, she's happy with the results so far.

"It's coming along pretty well," she said. "It's because of everyone involved. The communities really get behind these events. The officers, they work hard and they really believe in the cause."

They raise the money through numerous fundraisers across the state throughout the year.

Tim O'Connell, the Billings Police Department's deputy chief, has been participating in the torch run since 1999, often biking some of the more grueling stretches of the Billings to Big Timber leg.

"It's fun to take some time out of your day to do this," he said. "It's a great cause."

Hornung said the fundraising, and the run itself, shows a softer side of law enforcement, and the interaction with the athletes is what keeps them coming back year after year.

That interaction is vital for everybody involved, Sappington said.

"The athletes really like having the officers there to hand out the medals and for the ceremony," she said. "And the officers really look up to the athletes too. If you talk to an officer, they say they win too because, usually, when you call on them it's not for something good but when they come to the Special Olympics, they're greeted with open arms."



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