'Carrying the heartbeat into the world'

Jakob Michael Berr for ESPN

SCHLADMING, Austria -- Two by two, law enforcement officers from around the world jogged in step on Saturday morning toward Schladming's Main Square, where hundreds of fans lined the street holding posters and awaiting their arrival. But it was what they carried with them that was the cause for celebration.

After a 10-day, 29-mile journey through 49 cities across Austria, the Law Enforcement Torch Run arrived for the Special Olympics World Winter Games. About nine hours after its arrival, the Flame of Hope was used to light the Special Olympics cauldron.

"This is the awesome culmination of a whole week of supporting these athletes," said Capt. Barry Wilson, a state trooper from Anchorage, Alaska. "It's uplifting. These athletes are an inspiration."

Although the Final Leg Torch Run started only a week and a half ago in Bregenz, Austria, the Law Enforcement Torch Run movement began more than three decades ago in Wichita, Kansas. Today, it raises more than $50 million annually for the Special Olympics and is the organization's most significant ongoing fundraising activity.

"I've been involved with Special Olympics and the torch run since a sergeant brought me to an event years ago," Wilson said. "Once you see these athletes compete, you get perspective. They make your difficulties seem a lot easier to deal with."

When 84 law enforcement officers from 24 countries ran through Schladming's Main Square to deliver the torch, they arrived at a party. Dustin Plunkett, a Special Olympics athlete and ambassador who is in Austria working for ESPN as a TV analyst, posted up at the entrance to the spectator area to high-five the runners as they ran toward the stage.

"Just being there to give the officers a high five meant a lot to me because they're heroes to me," Plunkett said. "They carry the flame for every Games and raise awareness for all the athletes, including myself. I had a blast today."

Before starting its trek in Bregenz on March 9, the Flame of Hope was lit in Athens on March 5. Accompanied by Nikos Angelakis, a law enforcement officer from Greece, the flame was then flown in a miner's lamp in the cockpit of an Aegean Airlines flight and arrived in Zurich on March 7, where it was used to light the Flame of Hope.

In each city the Final Leg Torch Run stopped in, the law enforcement officers joined with local police and city officials to hold a ceremony like the one that took place in Salzburg on Saturday. "We had 51 ceremonies the past 10 days," Capt. Wilson said. "It's been a lot of big days."

After an hourlong celebration that included speeches from Schladming Mayor Jurgen Winter, Special Olympics global ambassador Mandy Manzardo and law enforcement officer Melanie Rettenbacher, who grew up in Schladming, the athletes and officers departed the stage to interact with the crowd.

Law enforcement officers Toni Duncan, left, of Baltimore, Maryland, and Paul Mangus, center right, of Hilo, Hawaii, shared a moment with Slovakian athletes Juraj Suster and David Bocek as the party continued around them.

"I'm thrilled to be back in Schladming to speak in front of these athletes who so inspire me and my law enforcement colleagues," Rettenbacher said.

The Final Leg Torch Run was a family affair, drawing fans from around Austria. Kristina Tischer and her son Matthias, 4, traveled from Vienna to watch the torch make its final run down the Hauptplatz. Matthias couldn't pass up the opportunity to grab hold of the torch along with Manzardo and Sgt. Bruce Merriam of Stowe, Vermont.

At Saturday night's opening ceremony, Merriam made the final handoff of the torch to the World Games athletes who then carried it through Planai Stadium and used it to light the Special Olympics cauldron. Said Drucker: "They completed the mission of delivering the Flame of Hope safely to the Games."