FORT JACKSON, SC -- As a torch was ignited at the Solomon Center Friday night, so too, was the enthusiasm of almost 1,100 athletes from across the state who traveled to Fort Jackson to showcase their athletic talents.

The 2010 South Carolina Special Olympics Games began May 7 with an Olympic torch run in which Athlete of the Year, Kenneth Whitaker, led about 100 runners, mostly law enforcement personnel, 7 miles from the Statehouse steps in Columbia to the Solomon Center to light the "Flame of Hope" and launch the opening ceremonies.

This year marked the 43rd anniversary of the Special Olympics Games, and the third year the 3rd Battalion, 13th Infantry Regiment hosted the events, which included bowling and softball competitions on post; aquatics and track and field competitions in Columbia; and gymnastics and cheerleading in Irmo.

"It was a privilege for us to be able to host these events," said 1st Lt. Tony Hedrick, project officer for 3-13th. "It was such a rewarding experience working with these athletes. Their motivation and determination is beyond belief."

"It was a real honor for the athletes as well," said Kelly Garrick, sports director for South Carolina Special Olympics. "Our community has such a high regard for the military and the role each Soldier plays in protecting and serving. It is not uncommon for an athlete to request to be involved in a PT run on Sunday morning after having competed all day on Saturday."

Garrick said the triumphs achieved during the games were a culmination of hard work and long practice sessions for athletes who require training with a very specific approach.

"The athletes are required to train a minimum of eight weeks before competition and compete in a local competition as well," she said. "They rely on strong coaches with a good eye for correct strokes, techniques for a good baton exchange in a relay, knowledge of how to hit the perfect bunt and home run ... and techniques for throwing a perfect pin-knocking strike.

"These games are the athletes' opportunity to show how they have grown in their sport," she said.

Lt. Col. Benjamin Higginbotham, commander of the 3-13th, said he had the opportunity to visit every one of the venues and said he thought this year's events went extremely well.

"The enduring partnership between the battalion and the South Carolina Special Olympics coordinators paid great dividends in helping to achieve a smooth outcome," Higginbotham said.

He said the battalion's cadre have taken such pride from supporting the Special Olympics that some of those who have moved on to other positions came back this year to volunteer.

Staff Sgt. John Doyle, a drill sergeant for Company C, 3-13th who helped set up tents and was a first-time spectator for the softball competitions, said watching the players inspired him both personally and professionally.

"As Soldiers, we are faced with adversities in our duty," Doyle said. "These special athletes overcome adversity with nearly every waking moment of their lives. Their spirit, drive and determination to keep going is truly inspiring."

Van Abbott, coach for the Myrtle Beach Mariners, said he and the members of his softball team appreciated the camaraderie shared among the athletes and Soldiers alike.

"To me the overall enjoyment of both the athletes and the Soldiers is the best aspect of the games," Abbott said. "The Soldiers are always around smiling and saying hello to these guys and in our case, they were right there at the softball complex showing support and giving high fives, something that means a great deal to these athletes."

"The service we receive from every civilian to every military personnel speaks volumes to us about how much our athletes mean to the community," Garrick said. "That acceptance is priceless."

In July, 154 South Carolina athletes will travel to Lincoln, Neb., to compete in the 2010 Special Olympics USA National Summer Games.

Page last updated Thu May 13th, 2010 at 08:56