Eighteen years after he first started competing in the Special Olympics, Ernie Roundtree jogged into Riverfront Park on Wednesday morning bearing the Olympic flame, the beginning of the final leg to Seattle, where the games are to start Sunday.
One of over 4,000 athletes who will compete at the Special Olympics, Roundtree, of Monroe County, Pennsylvania, said the games have helped him gain independence, as well as physical and mental strength.
“Because of Special Olympics, I have completed seven full marathons,” he said. “It also taught me to be independent, and I have lived on my own for almost two years.”
As Roundtree made his way to the Skate Ribbon, and the podium where Mayor David Condon and others waited, he was escorted by the Spokane Police Department and an entourage of law enforcement officers from 47 states across the country.
Law enforcement has a long history of supporting the Special Olympics, said Assistant Police Chief Justin Lundgren with the Spokane Police Department.
“The Law Enforcement Torch Run is the largest grassroots fundraising and awareness vehicle supporting Special Olympics,” he said.
The torch run started 30 years ago, when Wichita, Kansas, Police Chief Richard LaMunyon challenged his officers to support the Special Olympics.
That first year, LaMunyon and his officers only raised a few hundred dollars. “37 years later,” Lundgren said, “(it) has collectively raised over half a billion dollars.”
Maryland native Sgt. Gus Proctor was introduced to the torch run in 2005, and has been involved ever since.
“I met so many wonderful athletes whose smiles just captured my heart,” he said. “This duty, by far, has been the best part of my 27 years in law enforcement.”
The Special Olympics will be the largest sports event in Washington since the 1990 Goodwill Games, Condon said. The games will include basketball, swimming, volleyball and tennis, among many others.
Spokane will also have its first stand-up paddleboard team, said Mary Do, vice president of development for Special Olympics Washington. She said the event helps promote inclusion and acceptance within the community.
“Special Olympics is training our athletes for life on and off the playing field,” she said. “It really showcases what our athlete’s abilities are, and not what their disabilities are.”
Hannah Devine, a 23-year-old Special Olympics athlete from Cheney, has participated since she was 8 years old. She’s competed in events including basketball, softball, bowling, track and field, soccer and volleyball.
She said the program has helped her build connections with others in her community.
“It really does inspire me, and it really does encourage me to make more friends,” she said.
Local Special Olympics athlete Joseph Warner plays soccer with his teammates at University High School in Spokane Valley. He said his favorite part of Special Olympics is being able to travel with his friends.
His sister, Kami Smith, said the program has helped her brother grow on a personal level.
“He’s more independent, he’s made more friends, he’s more outgoing,” she said. “He’s more confident in himself, he now has a job. I just think the program is irreplaceable, and we need to keep supporting it.”