AREA — Every year, a small band of folks tie up traffic running through town holding a torch.
Who are they?
What are they doing?
They are police officers and athletes from the area.
They are the forerunners to the yearly Special Olympics Games in Maine.
The Law Enforcement Torch Run® for Special Olympics began in 1981 in Wichita, Kansas. Police Chief Richard LaMunyon conceived the Torch Run as a way to involve local law enforcement personnel in the community and to support the Special Olympics. The Torch Run was adopted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), which is recognized as the founding law enforcement organization for the Law Enforcement Torch Run® for Special Olympics.
According to its website, “The Law Enforcement Torch Run® (LETR) is the largest public awareness vehicle and grass-roots fundraiser for Special Olympics. Known honorably as Guardians of the Flame, law enforcement members and Special Olympics athletes carry the ‘Flame of Hope’ into the Opening Ceremony of local competitions, and into Special Olympics State, Provincial, National, Regional and World Games. Annually, more than 97,000 dedicated and compassionate law enforcement members carry the ‘Flame of Hope,’ symbolizing courage and celebration of diversity uniting communities around the globe.”
In Bridgton, former Chief of Police Bob Bell learned of the torch run at an IACP meeting and brought it to Bridgton, making Bridgton the first town in Maine to hold one.
Bridgton Patrol Officer Phil Jones, 35, of Bridgton, began at Bridgton Police Department in 2006.
“I was handed a T-shirt and told I would be running and to be there!” he laughs, noting he had no idea what he was running for. He soon found out.
Then, in 2009, then-leg leader BPD Officer Bernie King passed the mantle to Jones. The leg leader is responsible for the leg of the torch run in his area. For Jones, he organizes and oversees the run from Bridgton to Minot.
The torch run leads up to the summer games, explains Jones, noting there are about 15 legs throughout the state and they are always the Tuesday before the games, which take place in Orono.
In Maine there are more than 700 members of law enforcement who participate in the Torch Run. They run through populated areas and drive between those.
The Torch Run also includes fundraising, such as T-shirt and merchandise sales and special events like polar bear plunges.
Back to Jones.
“After getting more involved, I got to go to Calgary, Alberta, in Canada for a conference and see this [Torch Run] on an international level. I thought it was cool to see [law enforcement] from all over [the world].
“At some point,” he continues, “I began being involved with the Maine executive council that orchestrates everything in the state. It runs the conferences, fundraising and raising awareness.”
Then last year Jones – the parent of three young children and often foster parent of more – asked his wife if he could go away for two weeks. This was a big deal as it would leave his wife juggling children and responsibilities by herself.
“She said ‘yes’ so then I asked my boss [Bridgton Chief of Police Richard ‘Rick’ B. Stillman] and he said ‘yes’ so I applied to go to the world games” for the “Final Leg.”
The 2017 Special Olympics World Games were held in Austria in March.
He was selected by his peers on the state executive council to attend.
Jones was the only one from Maine attending. He would join 100 police officers from all over the world.
“I met officers from the Netherlands, Taipei, Jamaica, Australia, Labrador, the states and, of course, Austria.”
Preparing to go to the games was a complicated interwoven plan that took years to plan, Jones says, and depended on each segment to work smoothly.
“We had to plan with the Austrian government for safety issues with the world as unstable as it is.”
They worked with Columbia Sportswear Company, which outfitted all 100 officers.
The officers were responsible for everything including organizing passports for the 10 athletes from the United States who were participating in the Torch Run, meeting the athletes along the way and getting them to Austria and back.
So officers met the various athletes at airports across the U.S. and they all came together in Newark to fly to to Europe. No athlete traveled any leg of the journey alone.
From Newark they flew to Zurich where they got a bus from Zurich to Bregenz, Austria. There the officers and athletes broke into two groups that covered 50 cities for the Torch Run.
The two weeks leading up to the games were hectic, he says.
“We covered a vast amount of space. Every day we had a schedule, we could be in one city or five … we drove all over the country, hop out, run three to five miles in tight formation, shouting our slogan.”
Then hop back on the bus and go to the next run site.
Unlike the U.S. runs, these runners ran in formation with two hands on the torch at all times – an athlete’s and an officer’s – and the slogan was:
Where have you been?
All around the world
and back again!
Jones’ group’s athlete was Amanda Bammann from Boulder Colorado.
Torch, courtesy, celebration
Also unlike the runs here, the torch is lit.
As it is for the Olympic Games, the torch is lighted in Greece at the Zappeion Palace in Athens using the sun through a parabolic mirror. (This was, in Ancient Greek times, thought to be the fire of Zeus.)
It is then transferred via a “miner’s lamp” to Austria where the torches are lit. Preceding the runners are spare torches in a truck filled and ready to switch out so the flame can’t go out before lighting the the main torch at the opening ceremonies.
“The courtesy was really amazing,” says Jones. “… shutters would open, people would come out of their homes and businesses and follow us to the town square.”
Behind the officers and athletes, local police cadets and police would run.
At the squares of each town or city, officials would have a stage erected, describes Jones, and there would be cultural performances, speeches, food and festivities.
“In Innsbruck [in the Tyrolean Alps] there is a gold roof [the Goldenes Dachl is the city’s most famous landmark] we ran under it. I got to give a speech … it was really cool … the whole crew was there and I got a text telling me I was on ‘Good Morning America!’ Each speaker [in the various towns] brought a gift and was given a gift. I brought a gift from Maine, it was the state flag in a shadow box that was engraved from the Bridgton Police Department to the People of Innsbruck. I also gave them a letter from Senator Susan Collins. They gave me some local souvenirs.”
He pulls out a pen from the Austrian National Police marked “Polezei,” “and I got [police] patches from other police.”
“We ran for two weeks straight,” he tells, noting that the athletes were “real athletes. They have run marathons and races.”
Finally the group arrived in Schladming, Austria, the site of the games.
“Three officers took the flame to the top of the mountain and skied the torch down the to start the games.”
Unfortunately, it was a torrential downpour, says Jones, so the opening ceremonies that would normally be in the full dress uniforms of the world’s police officers, was, instead, in the like of waterproof Special Olympic uniform.
“But it was still amazing,” he says. “[Multi-Grammy award-winning folk-pop songsmith] Jason Mraz sang and the president of Austria gave the address. We got to see each country march in … 200 U.S. athletes including Maine athletes, the ceremony, fireworks … then, finally, sleep.
“The next day we got to jump in icy water for the polar dip.” The polar dip is a major fundraiser for the Torch Run.
“Unfortunately, because of the rain the competitions were cancelled [and rescheduled] so we didn’t get to see games. The next day we left and came back to life as normal.”
“I was really blown away by the support of the [Bridgton Police] Department, the town and the state,” Jones says.
But it was more than that.
“People from around the world who don’t speak each other’s language … such a mix of world views, cultures, religions … [we all] have something in common … we clink a glass together … we all enforce different laws, some local, some federal but we are all there for goodwill and the support of these Special Olympic athletes.
“It was an extraordinary experience and I am certainly better for it.”
BPD Officer Phil Jones is in charge of organizing the local Law Enforcement Torch Run® for Special Olympics. The runs through the state helped pay for the trip to Newark, says Jones. Once the group left Newark the journey and expenses were paid for by the U.S. Torch Run International.
Special Olympics Maine’s mission is “to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.”
Torch Run has grown over the years and now includes many fundraising platforms. These platforms include: Plane Pulls, Polar Plunges, Tip-A-Cops, and more. Since the beginning, LETR has raised more than $600 million for Special Olympics programs.
The Bridgton Police Department supported his trip with time off.
Jones’ local run to raise money for the 2019 games was June 7. It began in Bridgton and came up Route 117 to Norway where officers from the Norway Police Department, Paris Police Department, Maine State Police and DHS joined along with athletes from The Progress Center.
Another organizer took over at the Auburn town line, he says.
His future plans include “improving what we do here.”
He hopes to publicize the run better and would love it if the various communities came out on the sidewalks and cheered the runners on.
The 2019 final leg and games are in Abu Dhabi.