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By Randy Kindred

By the time the Flame of Hope reached Hancock Stadium on Friday for the Special Olympics Illinois Summer Games, law enforcement personnel statewide had some weary legs.

A relay requiring 3,000 officers and covering nearly 1,500 miles can be taxing on thighs, calves, ankles and feet.

Dan McIntyre, Assistant Director of Illinois LETR, presenting Kathy Schniedwind, Jacob Seelbach, and Pete Beale-DelVecchio with a check of more than $5 million.

No one was complaining.

The Illinois Law Enforcement Torch Run has become a source of pride for officers representing all branches of Illinois law enforcement. They consider minor aches and pains a small price for providing benefits to the state’s Special Olympics athletes.

“It’s absolutely worth it, especially when you see all these athletes,” said Matt Gabrielson of the Kane County Sheriff’s Office. “Every hug, every high five of this weekend, that makes it so worth it.”

Gabrielson’s white uniform shirt was covered with signatures, mostly from Special Olympics Illinois athletes. He wore it proudly.

On Friday night, the Illinois Law Enforcement Torch Run presented Special Olympics Illinois with a check of more than $5 million.

Matt Gabrielson of the Kane County Sheriff's Office proudly wears a uniform shirt covered with signatures from Special Olympics Illinois athletes.

A labor of love? Absolutely.

“It’s my favorite thing I do in my job,” Gabrielson said. “There is so much negative (to deal with), to do something like this for these athletes, it makes it all worth it.”

Patricia Echols has been involved for nearly 30 years. Commander of the operational support command of the Cook County Sheriff’s Police, she said she has a brother who is an athlete.

She relished what she saw as Summer Games athletes walked in during the Opening Ceremony.

“It shows that they really feel proud of what they’re doing and I’m really proud that we can have inclusion and everything that goes along with it,” Echols said. “It just means a lot. There are so many people who are so involved with this. It’s such a great cause.”

Champaign County corrections officer Micah McMahon carried a Law Enforcement Torch Run flag. New this year, the flag is designed to “highlight what we’re doing and show everybody what we’re about,” McMahon said.

“Raising awareness and supporting the cause, that’s what we’re here for,” he added.

Since its inception in 1986, the Torch Run has raised more than $70 million for Special Olympics Illinois. It is a huge number that has advanced Special Olympics Illinois programs in countless ways.

Even better news?

“That’s only the tip of the iceberg on where we’ll be one day,” McMahon predicted. “We’re going to keep doing it.”

Winning Walk

Claire Watkin of Round Lake was back at the Summer Games, hoping to improve on a fifth-place finish from a year ago in the 400-meter walk.

Claire Watkin of Grant Community High School in Fox Lake has fun posing for photos after winning a gold medal in the 400-meter walk.

Did she ever.

Watkin won gold, crossing the finish line four seconds ahead of the runner up. The victory in the F3 division was a reward for Claire’s work in practice at Fox Lake’s Grant Community High School and at home, said her mother, Coralee Watkin.

The post-race celebration included a brief lighthearted photo shoot in front of a Special Olympics Illinois backdrop.

“She already has a personality. She really does,” Coralee Watkin said. “This is perfect for her. It’s right up her alley. I’m glad she’s taking part in this.”

Claire, 17, will be a senior at Grant. She bowls on Tuesdays in a special needs group that her father, Jeff, called  “the best thing for her, really.”

“She’s made some pretty good friends from it which is great,” he said. “Most of them are here today … some with our school, some with other schools. They kind of cheer for each other.”

Best at Bocce

Angie Huston of Manhattan gives a thumbs up after adding to her extensive medals collection with a gold in bocce singles.

Angie Huston of Manhattan, who competes for Lincolnway SRA, has participated in the Summer Games for 20 years. Her medals haul has been so significant, her father joked: “I had to get a contractor to shore up her side of the house. She has lots of them (medals).”

Huston, 41, added to the collection with a gold in bocce singles. She displayed it with pride and also held a photo of her nephew, Cody, who is in the Marine Corps.

“He always has to call her and get the scores,” said Angie’s sister, Anne Barr. “She loves bocce. I have a ton of nephews and we do bocce for money.”

Consider it to be the family sport. Asked what she likes best about bocce, Angie smiled and said, “It’s just fun.”

There is no better reason.

Quick to SOAR

Less than an hour into the Summer Games, Bloomington SOAR’s Josh McClellan, Julia Schneider and Kelsey Ferguson had won gold medals in their divisions of the 1,500-meter run.

McClellan, a former World Games participant in Unified tennis, cruised to the win the M01 division. Schneider prevailed in F01 and Ferguson in F02. The trio is coached by Bethany Reeser, who ran competitively at Bloomington High School and for a year at Millikin University.

“I love it so much,” Reeser said. “They work so hard. They have that dedication and commitment like, ‘I want to do this.’ I love to coach them because they want to be better and I want to push them to be better.”

Reeser switched up the training regimen this year to include a mix of long and short distance runs.

“When you’re doing different things, you’re allowing the legs to work with the quicker stuff and also allowing your legs to be able to get tired,” Reeser said. “You need your legs to get tired for a long time to build that stamina.”

Learn more about 2024 Summer Games and view results as they become available.